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Maryland employers added 10,500 jobs in December

Hiring surged in Maryland last month, ending a positive, if uneven, year for Maryland's labor market on a high note.

Employers in the state added 10,500 jobs in December, with the health sector accounting for almost half of the new positions, according to a report released Tuesday by the U.S. Labor Department.

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The monthly gain was the fourth-largest for the state in the past 12 months, putting the annual growth rate at about 2 percent, which is higher than the national average.

Gov. Larry Hogan said the report was further evidence of an economy that is gaining strength.

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"It is more great news for Marylanders, as we continue to grow the private sector and put people back to work," he said in a statement.

Maryland was one of 36 states to add jobs last month, the Labor Department said.

The hiring came in nearly all sectors — even manufacturers added about 300 jobs. The largest increase was in health and education services, with a 5,000-position jump. The health sector accounted for 4,300 of those jobs.

The increases helped push the unemployment rate down to 5.1 percent, after it had drifted up in November, even as more than 6,000 people entered the labor force. Maryland's unemployment rate remains a hair higher than the national average of 5 percent.

Daraius Irani, an economist at Towson University's Regional Economic Studies Institute, cautioned that many of the new positions came with relatively low pay but said the preliminary report presented solid numbers.

The growth "is broad-based … so I think it does have some good legs."

In addition to the health sector, the trade, transportation and utilities sector added 2,600 jobs, while the professional and business services sector added 900.

Employers in the financial activities industry cut 400 jobs, while government shed 100.

The Labor Department report also revised November's 3,600 gain to a loss of 200 jobs.

Analysts said the health sector — long a source of job strength in Maryland — is growing as the population ages, more people get insurance, and health care reform encourages the industry to hire for new roles, such as care coordinators.

The December report might be adjusted later, "but the inherent trends, that's almost inexorable," said Douglas E. Hough, a health care economist at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

Since December 2014, Maryland's health care sector, which also includes organizations that provide social services such as emergency relief, has added about 10,800 jobs, the industry's highest annual gain since at least 2005, according to Labor Department data. That 3 percent growth rate is similar to national trends.

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Dylan Roby, an assistant professor at the University of Maryland School of Public Health, said it's possible that some health sector employers brought on staff in December to handle a spurt of elective operations that patients timed for the end of the year, when insurance is likely to cover the costs for people with high-deductible plans.

But many are likely hiring for new kinds of positions created as Maryland tries to shift from a fee-for-service model, and providers bolster their preventive care practices, he said.

A number of health care providers reported hiring increases.

At Anne Arundel Medical Center, Julie McGovern, vice president and chief human resources officer, said about 120 positions were added to the payroll last year, for a total workforce of about 4,300 employees. Much of the hiring happened as the system expanded geographically, with many of the new positions in ambulatory care or areas such as behavioral health and orthopedics, she said.

"We're growing," said McGovern, adding that she expects to see similar additions to the payroll in 2016.

Hospitals in the University of Maryland Medical System have added about 400 employees since March, and the system now has about 23,500 staff members, spokeswoman Karen Lancaster said.

The Evergreen Health Cooperative, a nonprofit insurer, brought on nine people in the past 12 months, boosting total staff to 73, said CEO Peter Beilenson.

Those hires are a response to a client base that has more than tripled in that time to about 40,000 members, as businesses and people seeking to avoid penalties for being uninsured sign up, he said.

"The Affordable Care Act clearly has made a difference both in terms of number of people covered and in terms of jobs," he said, adding that Evergreen also expects to hire significantly this year at the health centers it runs.

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