Maryland's job loss numbers: Not great news, but far from a calamity

The latest news on Maryland's economy has been disappointing at best. The state lost more than 13,000 jobs in May, one of the highest job losses in the country. But worse, the unfavorable monthly data comes on the heels of a U.S. Department of Labor report that ranks Maryland dead last in the nation in job creation over the last 12 months.

That's not something to be taken lightly — losing 20,000 jobs over the past year amounts to a 1 percent hit to Maryland's employment base. But it's also not a reason to run around the barnyard like headless chickens either.

Naturally, it took only a few nanoseconds for the usual suspects to blame the job losses on Maryland's allegedly unfriendly business climate. Too-high taxes, too-much regulation, too-many mandates, the crowing noises are familiar to any who follow such things.

What's really going on is that government spending is down, and Maryland's economic report reflects that trend. The state has benefitted from the growth of federal spending in decades past. Anytime that public sector spending slows, as it is now, the impact on the state is going to be significant — as it would be in any state where a single industry (in this case, the federal government) has such a large impact.

Easily-overlooked is the good news that Maryland simply didn't get hit as hard by the recession as many other states. Maryland currently stands at 95.7 percent of its pre-recession employment. That's better than the national average (95 percent) and ranks it 21st in the nation in terms of job recovery, only five spots behind Virginia and eight behind Pennsylvania but 21 ahead of Delaware, the state so often touted for its low taxes and business-friendly regulations.

The true bottom line is that Maryland's unemployment rate is holding steady at 6.8 percent. That's 25 percent lower than the nationwide average and still well below the rate of just one year ago. Where the job numbers go next largely depends on national economic trends.

In the short term, Maryland just did not have the job growth experience that the month of May usually brings with its seasonal hires. Government agencies and contractors are feeling the pinch. But the overall picture is far from dire: For 16 straight months, Maryland's unemployment rate has been in decline or steady — a slow but gradual recovering.

That's not to suggest the May numbers are anything but bad news. The recession has been difficult and employment trends reflect that.

But before Maryland starts allowing the Chesapeake Bay to be used as a cesspool or suspending the state's corporate tax collections or whatever else might be on the agenda, a more realistic assessment is in order. Maryland's chief economic asset remains it highly educated and skilled workforce, and the real questions to ask are: Are we capitalizing on it? And will all Marylanders be prepared for 21st century jobs?

Cyber security, biotechnology, medical research and health care, these are the fields that should hold great promise for the creation of desirable, well-paying jobs in Maryland. They may well be government-related but not necessarily government-dependent for growth.

There is no shame in Maryland's history of public sector employment. But it would clearly be sensible to promote private sector opportunities as well. The two things are not mutually exclusive.

There may even be areas in which Maryland can streamline its business regulations without putting workers or the environment at risk. If so, those opportunities ought to be pursued (although complaints of red tape or bureaucratic excess are oftentimes in the eye of the beholder).

Future economic growth also depends largely on the state's continued investment in public education, both on the state and local level. This year has not been kind to the funding of education, a trend that could become worrisome if it's allowed to continue.

Maryland's economy is simply where most of the nation is — treading water and hoping for better days ahead. Dramatic and sudden cutbacks to federal spending (as House Republican seem to want) wouldn't be helpful in this regard, but they don't seem likely either. Government work may no longer be called "recession-proof," but it's not going the way of buggy whip manufacturing either.

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