Crabbing

A Maryland crabber shows off a fresh blue crab catch. (Jed Kirschbaum, Sun Staff)

Along with its varied geography, Maryland features a wide range of job types -- from agriculture and "factory farm" jobs on the Eastern Shore to federal government work around Washington and canoe outfitters in the west's mountains. But the state was built on industry located at its center.

Baltimore's place as the state's economic engine had been established long before the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad's locomotives began pulling out of their roundhouse and chugging westward nearly two centuries ago. Ever since Baltimore was deemed a worthy port in the 1700s, its residents have been known as "working people" -- folks who aren't afraid to put their backs into it or get their hands dirty.

But as anyone who has watched "The Wire" or "Homicide: Life on the Street" knows, that big, brawny, smoke-belching Baltimore of the mid-20th century has gone the way of the buggy whip and American-made steel.

The city's once-vaunted industrial might -- the behemoth Bethlehem Steel Co. plant, Western Electric, Esskay Meats, and National American and Gunther breweries, among many others -- went out with a prolonged whimper over the past 50 years, as foreign competition, cheap labor overseas, and the merger frenzy collectively closed them or turned them into skeleton operations.

The engine has been sputtering ever since. Generations that had followed trails of stack smoke to work each morning found little in the way of new blue-collar jobs to replace the ones they were losing. The developing strain on the local economy led to "white flight" -- a migration of whites to the suburbs. A growing underclass took root in rowhouse neighborhoods on either side of downtown. Some residents started businesses of a different sort, creating an underground economy based on illegal drugs that has done damage to the city and chased out working taxpayers. (Nearly one in eight Baltimoreans left the city in the 1990s, leaving its population at 650,000, the lowest since the early 1900s.)

It is a sad tale, but one that doesn't have to end that way -- and one that fortunately doesn't speak for the entire state. A diversified economy has helped turn Maryland into the third-wealthiest state in the country. Its unemployment rate, despite a recent rise, remains well below the national average, as it has for much of the past two decades.

While 315,000 of the 2.4 million employed Marylanders still work in factories, two in every three workers provide services -- everything from tending bar to minding 401(k) plans. Nearly half a million people work for various government agencies, a result of the state's proximity to Washington, D.C. Bureaucrats, diplomats, high-ranking officials and service employees dominate the landscape in Montgomery and Prince George's counties, which border the nation's capital to the north. Every week, thousands of Baltimore-area residents make the arduous trek to Washington for work, sometimes enduring a four-hour round trip by car. Others opt for the Maryland Rail Commuter (or "MARC") trains, which are not cheap, but offer less aggravation.

Longtime residents (and migrant workers often not included in official statistics) till farms, harvest crops and pack chickens for companies such as Perdue. These are the primary industries along Maryland's Eastern Shore, which also includes a fluctuating seafood industry and tourism.

Mining, factories, paper mills, farming and service industries provide jobs for people in relatively sparsely populated Western Maryland, where, like Baltimore, the gaping holes left by the decline of heavy industry have only been partially filled.

In the Baltimore metropolitan area, an array of companies, nonprofit groups and government agencies have helped increase job opportunities. Although Baltimore City has yet to attract enough large businesses to make a dent against its chronic unemployment problems -- as the thousands of working-class residents forced to travel to the suburbs to work could tell you -- the Inner Harbor's tourist industry and numerous nonprofit groups have improved the employment picture.

On the redeveloped waterfront, the tourism industry has meant a surge in jobs at hotels and restaurants, and in taxis, maintenance and parking services. To ensure that Harbor workers can live off what they earn, the city government passed one of the country's first "living wage" laws, requiring employers whose properties were built with the help of local tax breaks to pay well above the federal minimum hourly wage.

Baltimore's low cost of living has helped draw several national nonprofit groups to the area. Among them are Lutheran Relief Services, World Relief, the Annie E. Casey Foundation, and Advocates for Children and Youth. A pair of longstanding nonprofit institutions, Johns Hopkins Hospital and Johns Hopkins University, combined represent the city's largest employer with more than 11,000 people working at various medical institutions, the university and an applied physics laboratory. A planned biotechnology center, a potential incubator for many businesses, may soon be operating north of the hospital, amid the city's otherwise bleak east side.

The city's status as a midpoint on the East Coast -- traversing Interstate 95 -- has brought many distribution centers to the region in the past decade, including United Parcel Service.

West of town is the Social Security Administration, the metro area's largest employer with more than 12,000 workers statewide. More than half of them work at the agency's sprawling headquarters in suburban Woodlawn.

To the city's south and southwest, numerous technology companies opened around Baltimore-Washington International Airport and in Howard County in the 1990s. Many workers there had been laid off during the tech bust of 2001-2003 -- providing yet another reminder that even a diverse economy can sometimes have trouble keeping the engine humming.

State leaders hope that the continuing diversity of the employment base can keep Maryland from the boom-and-bust cycles that have plagued other states, such as Washington and California. So far, history is on their side.