Maryland's labor market heated up in May, as the number of people entering the workforce swelled and employers added 13,500 jobs, the Labor Department reported Friday.
It was the second month in a row of significant job gains in Maryland, boosting payrolls by nearly 1.8 percent from the same period last year. The state added more than 16,000 jobs in April, after several months of declines or smaller increases.
"It's exceeding our expectations of growth," said Daraius Irani, chief economist at Towson University's Regional Economic Studies Institute. "There's optimism that basically we are getting some legs back under us in terms of the labor market."
Maryland was one of 37 states to experience job gains in May, when national payrolls rose by 280,000.
The construction sector led the state's job creation, adding 4,500 positions, followed by employers in leisure and hospitality and trade, transportation and logistics. The public sector added 2,700 jobs.
Firms in manufacturing, financial activities and the professional and business services sectors reported small declines.
As the economy mends, commercial building activity has heated up, said Doug Macpherson, general manager of the Baltimore-area branch of Construction Labor Contractors, which helps place craftsmen on building projects.
Macpherson said his office now receives more inquiries from employers than it can fill.
"All over, you're seeing cranes and activity that wasn't there, certainly not five years ago," he said. "We have more opportunities than we have qualified candidates."
Job-seekers are starting to respond. Since December, participation in the state's labor force has risen to 66.8 percent, beginning to turn back several years of downward drift. The increase of 12,900 workers in the state's labor force in May was the biggest monthly rise since at least 2005.
Meanwhile, as more people sought work, the unemployment rate held steady at 5.3 percent, below the national average of 5.5 percent.
Some of the labor force and job figures are inflated somewhat by an influx of graduating students and jumps in summer hiring, but economists said they expect Maryland's economy to continue to gather strength.
"The labor market has improved enough, for a long enough period of time, that some folks that had given up looking for a job are now coming back into the job market," said Mark Vitner, a senior economist at Wells Fargo. "We're probably not going to add jobs as quickly as we did over the last two months ... but the improvement is not artificial by any stretch of the imagination."
Sandra Kurtinitis, president of the Community College of Baltimore County, said she can tell the economy is improving by looking at her enrollments, which have dipped about 3 percent as students finding work cut back on classes.
"To me, that's a function of the economy and that's a good thing," she said. "When the economy gets tight again, the enrollment will go back up again. This is almost so predictable that every decade it happens."
Aaron Pack of Baltimore said he can see the rebound, too. Two sons have found jobs since January, and others he knows have become more optimistic about their chances.
"I can see hope in some of them that they believe within a period of time they can get a position," he said.
Others said it remains difficult.
"I've been looking for a job for the past two years and I still don't have one," said Amanda David, 41, who said a drug-related criminal record from years ago has dogged her job search. There "might be jobs out there, but they aren't out there for me."
Many continue to face hurdles when it comes to finding work, even when employers are interested, said Adrienne Breidenstine, executive director of The Journey Home, who is in charge of the city's efforts to combat homelessness.
Breidenstine said her office plans to use a new three-year, $125,000 grant from the National Center on Employment and Homelessness to help homeless people expunge criminal records and to push for more flexible child-support rules, so that the threat of garnished wages does not discourage out-of-work fathers from taking jobs.
She said she also wants to find ways to make it easier for the homeless to tap into training programs. Right now, the average person who gets a job through The Journey Home's job-placement program makes about $9 an hour.
"It's certainly not enough to afford housing or basic needs, so we need to train them," she said. "Placing them in a job isn't enough."
Hunt Valley-based Carchex, which sells extended auto warranty plans, has been on a hiring tear, as it brings on people to handle increased calls since it expanded its advertising reach.
The staff at its Hunt Valley offices has grown from 56 in January to 90. The company expects to have well over 100 people on the payroll by the end of the year, said CEO Jason Goldsmith.
"There's a lot of folks that are applying," he said. "The tough thing is getting the qualified candidate, and the challenge is identifying the ones that are a really good fit for our culture and the position."
Candace Franklin, 24, works in customer service. She said she knows it is possible to find jobs: Her husband is among the more than 1,000 people that Amazon has hired in recent months to staff its new distribution facility in Southeast Baltimore.
But she's planning to stay where she is for now.
"There's jobs out there, but jobs that are paying an amount that can pay my bills? No," she said.
The average annual pay in Maryland rose about 2.4 percent last year. Vitner said he expects to see those numbers increase, as sectors such as construction improve.
But for many job-seekers the improving job market can be hit or miss.
Gerleene Garcia, a 19-year-old college student, said landing her summer job, a full-time position at McDonald's, was easy.
"They're taking people so fast, you can't say no," she said. "That's the kind of job that's out there. It's not really an opportunity."