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In Maryland, jobs recovery uneven

To understand how unevenly the recession and recovery rippled across Maryland, consider its economic extremes.

At one end, there's Anne Arundel County. Its employment base was 7 percent larger this spring than it was five years earlier, a gain of 17,000 new jobs. A major driver of that growth, Fort Meade, is now the state's single largest employer — so big it hires thousands of people each year "just because of attrition," said installation spokeswoman Mary Doyle.

At the other end, just a few dozen miles away, is Talbot County. Buffeted by the housing bust like much of the Eastern Shore, its job base shrank faster than Anne Arundel's grew — a steep 8 percent drop.

"Companies laid off people and didn't hire them back," said Paige Bethke, Talbot's economic development director. "They hired [via] temporary jobs."

And Baltimore County remains a laggard, hammered by the closure of the Sparrows Point steel mill and cuts elsewhere.

Most of Maryland's counties remained in a job deficit this spring, with recessionary losses that had yet to be erased, according to a Baltimore Sun analysis of U.S. Labor Department figures released this month. One — Somerset County on the Eastern Shore — never had even the glimmer of a recovery, according to the analysis of April-June employment over the past five years.

And yet seven counties had more jobs. One — St. Mary's in Southern Maryland — did not experience losses.

Overall, Maryland had slightly more jobs in November than at the start of the recession, according to a separate employment survey released Friday by the Labor Department. But the state was still in the hole last spring.

Economist Anirban Basu sees a common denominator in most of the state's fastest-growing places: Washington. St. Mary's County is home to Naval Air Station Patuxent River. Anne Arundel gained thousands of jobs during the national military base realignment known as BRAC. Harford County, with a job base up 6 percent in the past five years, is another BRAC beneficiary.

"The communities that have tended to fare the best are the communities most closely attached to the federal government," said Basu, head of Sage Policy Group, a Baltimore economic and policy consulting firm.

But federal agencies did not always grow enough to overcome job losses in other sectors.

Baltimore County, headquarters of the Social Security Administration and the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, suffered the area's steepest job losses. Problems started during the recession and continued with the closure of Sparrows Point last year, which erased more than 2,000 jobs.

"There's so many people out of work ... that it's like five people looking for one job," said Robert Goode, who worked at the mill for 34 years in maintenance and fabrication.

Goode, a 55-year-old Baltimore resident, is training to repair air-conditioning and heating systems to improve his chances. He's used to hard work and long hours, but he's afraid the city and county employers he's applied to counted him out because he's older.

Among the places he tried: the company demolishing the steel mill.

"They didn't call back," he said.

Like the state, the Baltimore region was split between growth and loss. Three counties — Howard, Anne Arundel and Harford — expanded their job bases by at least 6 percent when the nation overall remained in the hole.

Some additions were big, such as the Maryland Live Casino, which added 3,000 jobs since opening in Hanover last year. Or Fort Meade, which has 49,000 employees and is responsible for so many new jobs in the past five years — on base and in contractors' offices — that it is a key reason why Anne Arundel added 17,000 positions during that period.

"We definitely would have been in a more difficult spot without it," said Mary Burkholder, executive vice president of the Anne Arundel Economic Development Corp.

Other job growth in the region came five at a time here, a dozen there, quickly adding up. Belcamp-based Nisbets Inc., which sells food-service equipment and supplies, opened last year with eight people, is now at 10 and expects to add one or two more next year.

"That's been our contribution to the local economic boom," said Shane Mummery, Nisbets' general manager.

And though some defense contractors have cut back amid tighter federal budgets, the sector helped fuel growing Baltimore-area counties. Virginia-based ManTech International, for instance, has added about 700 jobs since 2010 in the Baltimore region, largely in Hanover to service work for Fort Meade and in Belcamp for Aberdeen Proving Ground in Harford County.

But half the Baltimore region shed jobs.

Carroll County and Baltimore City each lost 2.5 percent of their jobs base. Baltimore County — the region's largest economy — lost nearly 4.5 percent, more than 16,000 jobs, according to federal data.

"I'm quite sure the people of Baltimore County would be surprised to learn that they lost more jobs on a percentage basis than Baltimore City," Basu said. "I am too, honestly. Because my perception ... has been that Baltimore City and Prince George's County in particular really took it on the chin."

The Sun's analysis relied on the U.S. Department of Labor's Quarterly Census of Employment and Wages. It is a far more exact tally of jobs than the monthly surveys of employers, but it lags by nearly half a year. It's also not perfect: If an employer with multiple offices used to report all its jobs together and later provided a breakdown, for instance, it could boost some counties at the apparent expense of the one with the main office.

Labor Department analysts say they believe the numbers are accurate. They watch for unusual changes and make adjustments when needed.

In Baltimore County, the trouble over the past five years was not limited to manufacturing. The county suffered broad job cuts, from video game makers to retailers to grocers. "It was really across the board," said Helga Weschke, the county's deputy director of economic development.

The county government also shed jobs, though not through layoffs. In the past three years, through attrition and early-retirement incentives, officials eliminated 381 positions in county agencies aside from the police and fire departments, bringing employment in that part of county government to its lowest level in a quarter-century.

Weschke said she's seen improvements this year on the jobs front. Job postings are up. Employers, manufacturers included, need more help.

"Some good things are definitely happening, so we're encouraged," she said.

As painful as they were, job cuts in the Baltimore area didn't slice as deeply as on parts of the Eastern Shore. Washington's job halo is smaller there. No growing military bases offset the pummeling that came when housing construction hit a wall.

"The Shore-area real estate boom was unbelievably good to us, but also it created that bubble, and boy, did it burst," said Memo Diriker, director of Salisbury University's Business, Economic and Community Outreach Network. "That had all kinds of ripple effects."

The five Maryland counties that lost the biggest share of their job base in the past five years are all on the Shore: Talbot, Kent, Somerset, Dorchester and Wicomico. Diriker thinks that area is at least three years away from recovering all of its recessionary job losses.

Bethke, Talbot's economic development director, said losses over the past five years — 1,600 positions out of a base of 20,000 jobs — came in employer cutbacks rather than a major closure. She said she's seen stabilization recently, but not much growth. Companies have been cautious, she said, with some waiting to see how federal health care requirements will affect them.

"We have a lot of compelling stories about business growth," she said. "But a lot of it is being accomplished with less than full-time employment."

Caroline County is the lone outlier on Maryland's Eastern Shore. It saw some of the state's fastest growth in the past five years, a turnaround after steeper-than-average losses during the recession. Caroline's job base was up about 600 positions, nearly 7 percent, given its small size.

Caroline grew in part at Baltimore County's expense. After Solo Cup announced in 2010 that it would close its Owings Mill plant, it added jobs at its facility in Federalsburg.

Angela Visintainer, executive director of the Caroline Economic Development Corp., said other local manufacturers buffeted by the downturn beefed up their exports.

"Now the domestic business has started to bounce back, plus they've added in these new markets in Europe as well as other parts of the world," she said. "Those two things together have put them in a pretty strong position."

In St. Mary's, the Southern Maryland county that got through the recession without net job losses, the trick was growth related to the naval air station.

But while Uncle Sam can give, he also can take away. It is an issue for every part of Maryland that relies on federal spending, but particularly St. Mary's. The past few years of tighter budgets in Washington have pressed county officials to work on ways to cultivate nongovernment growth, such as supporting entrepreneurship.

"We're right in the eye of the arrow for defense drawdown and sequestration and the budget uncertainty that continues to persist," said Robin Finnacom, acting director of St. Mary's Department of Economic and Community Development.

Baltimore Sun reporter Alison Knezevich contributed to this article.

jhopkins@baltsun.com

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Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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