After a blockbuster month for hiring in March, Maryland employers added 200 jobs in April, a small gain that nevertheless helped drive down the unemployment rate to 4.6 percent, according to estimates the Labor Department released Friday.
Although the monthly increase was small, annual job growth in Maryland topped 2 percent, outpacing the national average for the second month in a row, after lagging for about five years.
"This report was somewhat mixed but overall, take a step back and look at the changes over the last 12 months — you're seeing very solid labor market growth," said R. Andrew Bauer, a Baltimore-based economist for the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond.
While weakness in the energy sector and in exports have hurt the larger economy, Maryland has largely remained unaffected, Bauer said. And with federal spending proceeding more regularly, some of the uncertainty for the many Maryland firms working with the government has faded.
Fulton-based Quality Associates Inc. and affiliate DocPoint Solutions, which employ about 200 people, mostly in Maryland, brought on more than 19 people over the last year and are expecting similar growth in 2016, said Scott Swidersky, executive director of QAI, which celebrates its 30th anniversary this year. The firms do about 70 percent of their business with the federal government, working on programs to help manage government data and content.
"There is relatively minor interruption to the agencies having a budget, so there's no interference with conversations around furloughs and reductions and all that kind of thing," Swidersky said. "Everything is kind of level set at the moment."
The professional and business services sector — a grab bag category that includes government contractors and temporary workers — led last month's hiring, adding 1,700 jobs, while leisure and hospitality employers added 1,400 positions.
The gains in those industries, as well as in financial activities, education and health, made up for losses in other fields, including trade, transportation and utilities, which lost 2,000 jobs, and manufacturing, which shed 1,000 positions.
Government payrolls fell by 600, largely at the federal and local levels.
The new estimates also positively revised March's job gain to 20,300, 1,000 more than what had been reported previously. While many analysts anticipated changes to March's figures, they said they had thought it might go the other way.
"The flat reading was somewhat positive, given that we had this huge increase last month," Bauer said.
Nearly 4,000 people entered the labor force in April, finding jobs or looking for work — a gain, albeit not as large as some in recent months. Despite that growth, the number of unemployed fell.
Maryland's 4.6 percent unemployment rate was a tenth of a percentage point less than in March and well below the 5 percent national average.
Despite the improvement, wages did not budge. The average hourly wage for a Maryland private sector worker was $27.19 in April, more than 30 cents lower than it was a year ago, adjusting for inflation.
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Economists attributed the lower average pay to the mix of jobs, with many of the new positions in lower-paying fields.
The stagnant wage growth has prompted regulatory measures, such as a new rule announced by the White House that makes more workers eligible for overtime, as well as calls for increases to the minimum wage.
Daraius Irani, an economist at Towson University's Regional Economic Studies Institute, said those endeavors may improve wages but slow hiring as firms look to automation to reduce costs.
But Michael Lastoria, the CEO of &pizza, a Washington-based fast-casual restaurant chain that is opening a shop in Federal Hill this month, said part of the impetus for higher wages is coming from customers.
The chain, which has opened 14 other locations since its 2012 launch, has hired about 30 people in anticipation of its Thursday opening in Baltimore and is opting for starting hourly pay of $10.50, above Maryland's $8.25 minimum.
"More and more often … customers … want to look under the hood and find out what you're all about," said Lastoria, adding that better pay also makes for a better workforce. "I think the message to other restaurateurs and other small business is that your customers pay attention and … care. If you do the right thing, they will be incredibly supportive."