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Maryland lost 1,800 jobs in February, but unemployment rate fell

Maryland lost 1,800 jobs in February, but unemployment rate continued to fall

The latest jobs report for Maryland showed February was a disappointing month as job losses outpaced gains, though the state's unemployment rate continued to fall.

Maryland employers cut 1,800 positions last month and experienced less job growth in January than previously reported, according to new estimates the Labor Department released Friday.

Despite the losses, Maryland's unemployment rate continued to fall, dropping a tenth of a percentage point to 4.7 percent — lower than the 4.9 percent national average — as more people entered the workforce.

Analysts said that's a sign that underlying trends for Maryland's economy remain positive, notwithstanding recent downward revisions to more than a year of state job data. Friday's report also reduced January's job gains from 1,900 to 800.

"The report was slightly discouraging," said Mekael Teshome, an economist at PNC Financial Services Group, who tracks Maryland's performance. "Overall, I still think 2016 will be a better year for the state than 2015."

Maryland was one of 14 states to report losses in February, a month when national employment increased by 242,000. Total national employment expanded about 1.9 percent from the same month last year.

Maryland has added 37,600 jobs since February 2015, a growth rate of about 1.4 percent, the Labor Department said.

Employers in education and health services added 5,400 positions last month, while the trade, transportation and utilities sector added 1,000 jobs. Manufacturers reported 300 job gains — improvement highlighted by the state Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation in its release about the job numbers.

Construction added only 200 jobs in February, but that figure masks the sector's strength in the past year, said R. Andrew Bauer, a Baltimore-based senior regional economist at the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond. Compared to February 2015, the number of jobs in construction has increased by more than 7,000 — nearly 4.7 percent.

The activity appears to be driven by commercial building, said Bauer, pointing to large apartment projects, many of them in Baltimore. He's still waiting for single-family home building to pick up, he added.

"Once that happens, that could really impact a lot of other sectors within the economy," he said.

The Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond's March survey of business activity, published Thursday, showed signs of improvement, after a weak start to the year. And February's losses could reflect skewy data, he said.

Still "it's a pretty mixed report," he said of the Labor Department release.

Losses in February were heaviest in the professional and business services sector, where employment declined by 5,200 positions. Leisure and hospitality employers reported 2,400 fewer jobs, while government reported 2,200 cuts.

Those numbers likely reflect what is typically a slower winter season, when employers reduce hours and need less extra help, said Roxie Herbekian, president of Unite Here Local 7, which represents about 3,000 hospitality industry employees in the Baltimore region. But the pace of hiring has improved already, she said.

"It's the normal cycle that we normally see, which means now we are on the upswing," she said, pointing to hiring at places like Oriole Park at Camden Yards in advance of Opening Day of the baseball season.

Several major chains, including Sports Authority and Jos. A. Bank, have recently announced plans to close stores, which typically employ dozens of workers.

Some of the retail cuts are seasonal, but the industry, which falls into the trade, transportation and utilities sector, also faces declining customer traffic, as people watch their wallets and shop online, said Mark Millman, president and CEO of Millman Search Group, a retail consulting and executive search firm. Several major retailers are in a precarious financial position, he said.

"People still aren't sure about the economy," he said. Retailers have "got to stay focused because you've got a very smart shopper now. They're very value-conscious."

nsherman@baltsun.com

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