He suggests the state invest more money and effort on economic development — and reconsider policies that aren't business-friendly — to better capitalize on a highly educated work force and good location.

"We have a problem in Maryland," he said. "Virginia isn't experiencing the same problem because it has diversified its economy. This is simple Economics 101."

Part of the reason more Marylanders have found jobs in recent months could be that they're commuting to Virginia. That state took a recessionary hit, too, but employers there have added jobs every month this year.

Alexander M. Sanchez, Maryland's labor secretary, said there's a lot of cross-border commuting because Marylanders live within driving distance of so many states. But he said Maryland is not falling behind in the jobs race.

Sanchez said the last-place ranking in year-over-year growth reflects a relative strength. Because Maryland was doing better than average during the recession, he said, many states have more lost ground to make up.

"May was a soft month, there's no getting around it, but … the unemployment rate has declined or held steady for 16 straight months," Sanchez said.

Joe Gonzales, a regional vice president based in Maryland for the staffing firm Robert Half International, sees reason for optimism on jobs. He said his clients, companies in need of employees, are feeling more confident about growth prospects.

The offices he manages specialize in white-collar specialties — finance, accounting, law, technology, advertising and marketing. He said they're seeing so much demand for certain finance and accounting staff that candidates are getting multiple job offers.

But with the high unemployment rate, he said, some companies are setting a high bar in their requirements. One specialized skill isn't enough. They want more.

"We'd like everything to be 100 percent better again — it'd be good for everybody — but we do feel like it's moving," Gonzales said. "Not as fast as we'd like, but moving in the right direction."

jhopkins@baltsun.com

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