The Maryland labor market started the spring with a bang, as employers added 19,300 jobs in March — more than any other state in the country, according to new estimates the Department of Labor released Friday.
It was Maryland's largest monthly gain of all but three months in the past 25 years — vaulting the state to the top spot, despite its small size.
Hiring outpaced the national rate as payrolls surged 2.4 percent from a year ago, breaking with previous months when Maryland lagged behind the rest of the country.
The upward trend in the state is clear, economists said, even as they tempered their optimism with warnings that the sheer size of the improvement may be too good to be true, a quirk of sample error and estimates that struggle to account for winter storms.
"This is unambiguously good news," said economist Richard Clinch, director of the Jacob France Institute at the University of Baltimore.
The unemployment rate held steady at 4.7 percent, the same as in February, as thousands more people entered the workforce. It remained below the national average of 5 percent.
"We were busy, for lack of a better way to say it," said Joe Gonzales, manager of the Baltimore region for Robert Half, a specialized staffing firm that works with employers in health care, information technology and other industries.
Economists said Maryland has benefited from reduced constraints on federal spending, while its major industries — like defense contractors and health care — are largely shielded from global economic uncertainty.
Last month, employers in the professional and business services industry — which includes temp workers as well as contractors — led the gains, adding 7,900 jobs. Payrolls in the leisure and hospitality sector increased by 5,600, while construction, which usually ramps up in warmer months, added 3,400 positions.
The new estimates also revised February's job figures from a loss of 1,800 jobs to an increase of 200.
The job gains outweighed the losses reported in some sectors. Employment in manufacturing declined by 900, followed by 800 fewer jobs in trade, transportation and utilities.
In Baltimore, hotels, restaurants and attractions are starting to increase staff for the tourist season, said Tom Noonan, president and CEO of Visit Baltimore, which promotes the city.
The payroll jump may also reflect hiring associated with Light City, the weeklong festival that fell at the end of March, he said.
"I really expect us to have one of those recovery springs, as opposed to last year for sure, and I expect us to have a pretty solid tourism summer," Noonan said.
Increased consumer spending is helping to fuel the economy as the newly employed spend their paychecks, generating additional growth.
But payroll increases have yet to translate into wage gains.
Private-sector employees in Maryland earned an average of $27.18 an hour, down about 2 percent from the previous year, according to Labor Department estimates, which, unlike the other figures, were not seasonally adjusted.
The averages have remained flat or declined since much of the new job growth has come in low-paying positions, said R. Andrew Bauer, a senior regional economist for the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond who is based in Baltimore.
"It will be interesting to see, now that we've seen the economy more fully pick up, how this indicator reacts," he said. "I would expect now that we're seeing more robust, more broader growth in the state's employment that we would start to see this trend higher."
In a statement that accompanied the state's release of the jobs figures, Gov. Larry Hogan called the job gains "excellent news."
"From day one, our administration has been committed to creating jobs and fostering a better, more friendly business environment," he said. "The creation of 63,000 jobs since January 2015 shows this commitment is paying off for the hard working people of our state."
More jobs are available, but for many, especially those with criminal records, child care demands and reliance on public transportation, it remains difficult to get hired, said Peter Wilson, manager for client and employment services at the Our Daily Bread Employment Center.
"It's slightly improving," he said. "However, we do still see a pervasive problem with individual barriers."