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Maryland adds 6,700 jobs, unemployment rate holds at 4.2 percent

Maryland adds 6,700 jobs, unemployment rate holds at 4.2 percent, Department of Labor report shows.

Maryland's labor market started the year on an upbeat, as employers added 6,700 jobs in January, wages began to climb and more people entered the workforce.

Hiring in retail, food services, hospitality and construction powered the state's job gains. Increases in those sectors kept the state's unemployment rate steady at 4.2 percent, well below the national rate of 4.8 percent, the U.S. Labor Department said Monday.

The report also revised months of data with updated payroll records from more companies. The figures suggest a Maryland labor market performing better than previously estimated in the second half of the year.

Economists expect the pace of hiring to cool in 2017. For Maryland, where the economy is tied firmly to the federal government, there's uncertainty over the effect of President Donald Trump's policies.

"There are a lot of risks for the regional economy that are split between positive and negative," said Mekael Teshome, economist at PNC Financial Services Group. "The fundamentals of the economy are fairly good, and the risks are really what could change things."

Maryland's January payrolls swelled 1.5 percent over the year, increasing by 40,000 jobs, according to the report. That was roughly on par with the 1.6 percent January-to-January growth nationally.

Pay for private-sector workers saw its most significant bump in more than two years. January's average hourly wage was up 65 cents from January 2016 to $28.03 per hour, according to estimates, which unlike the other figures were not adjusted for seasonal variation.

The improvement is drawing people back into the labor force. The number of people working or looking for work jumped by almost 9,000 people in January, and has been growing since the summer, though participation remains below historic highs.

A job fair that Cinebistro at the Rotunda hosted in January yielded about 800 applicants, said general manager Derik Farrar. The venue hired more than 80 people in advance of its February opening for a mix of full-time and part-time roles, he said.

"We were all very pleasantly surprised with just the sheer numbers of candidates," he said,

Customer interest in the new theater has been strong enough to warrant further hiring, he added.

"We're finding that we're at a point where we need to hire more people as well, to make sure that we're delivering the service and the quality of experience to our guests," he said.

Maryland's biggest January job gains came in the leisure and hospitality sector, where employers such as Cinebistro added 3,900 jobs. The trade, transportation and utilities sector — which includes retail — grew by 3,600 positions, while payrolls in construction increased by 1,800.

Other sectors reported losses. Employers in education and health services shed 2,100 jobs. Firms in professional and business services shed 1,100 positions, and government payrolls fell by 800. Manufacturing employment declined by about 400.

The Canam Group, a global steelmaker, notified the state this month that it expects to suspend one of the units at its Point of Rocks facility in Frederick County, laying off 80 to 90 workers over the next few months.

The firm expects to complete a major bridge project in May and does not have a backlog of orders to replace the work, prompting Canam to close the unit for an "undetermined period of time," spokesman Francois Begin wrote in an email. It will retain its corporate employees and about 80 other workers, he said.

The state likely received a boost from unseasonably warm weather this winter, which bolstered retail sales and allowed for accelerated construction schedules, said Daraius Irani, chief economist at Towson University's Regional Economic Studies Institute.

But the outlook remains unclear, he said. He's forecast job growth of less than 1.5 percent in 2017, anticipating that the country's historic growth streak will wind down.

Maryland in particular is vulnerable to changes in the federal workforce, as well as policies that hurt trade, though increased defense spending could be a boost.

"There's a lot of uncertainty in the air," Irani said. "There's some opportunities, but there's also some red flags ahead as well."

Leaders at drchrono, an electronic health record and medical billing software company that works with small and midsize medical practices, are hoping for opportunities.

The company, which started around 2009, employs about 65 people in Silicon Valley and another 100 in India. It recently recently hired six people for a new Hunt Valley office, its first U.S. location outside of California.

Co-founder and chief operating officer Daniel Kivatinos said the firm was drawn to the area by its large health care industry and relative affordability. He expects the Maryland office to double or triple in size this year, as doctors turn to drchrono for help with some of the anticipated changes to health insurance.

"I do see heavy growth over the next several years," he said.

nsherman@baltsun.com

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