Md. unemployment rate improves as employers add jobs

Maryland's unemployment rate improved in October as employers added 3,100 jobs, a bit of good news for residents to chew on heading into Thanksgiving and — retailers hope — holiday shopping.

The state's jobless rate dropped to 7.2 percent from 7.4 percent in September, the U.S. Department of Labor said Tuesday. The job growth estimates suggest that 60 percent of the net gains came from the private sector in October, with most of the rest coming from state government agencies.

Job growth has bumped up and down over the past year, producing only a relative inching-up in employment — to the chagrin of the more than 215,000 unemployed Marylanders. But the last several months have looked better than those at the beginning of the year, when losses kept overtaking gains.

"This is news to take to the Thanksgiving table," said Charles W. McMillion, president and chief economist at MBG Information Services in Washington. "There's some job growth the last four months where there wasn't before, and the labor force is growing, which I take as a very good sign."

Maryland's labor force — those working or looking for work — expanded by nearly 10,000 people in October, the second month of gains. McMillion sees that as a welcome change because the labor force dropped by more than 60,000 Marylanders between mid-2008 and the end of 2009, as would-be workers gave up searching for jobs. Labor force numbers have hovered around that lower level for months.

The Labor Department's job-creation estimates, which are preliminary and are typically revised later, show several sectors on an upswing in October — as well as others that have cut back.

Among the gainers was the retail industry, which had shed workers earlier in the year. Maryland retail employers created 1,300 jobs in October, a figure adjusted by the Labor Department to try to show the true growth beyond the normal seasonal uptick for the impending holidays.

Patrick Donoho, president of the Maryland Retailers Association, said many members of his trade group reported that they had added staff and are optimistic about sales.

"Some folks have waited to see what the sales would be like in the store before they really gear up," he added, noting that this could push some hiring that normally happens in October or November into December. "So for those looking for a job, don't give up."

The financial-activities sector also expanded, adding 1,500 jobs in October after a string of months that were more down than up. Even as some big banks are laying off employees across the country, Maryland-based financial institutions are feeling more optimistic and some are hiring, according to the Maryland Bankers Association.

"The Maryland banking industry has turned the corner," said Kathleen Murphy, chief executive of the trade group.

McMillion, the economist, said the downside of October job growth is that much of it came in sectors known for part-time, temporary or lower-wage work.

Also, the net gain would have been bigger if not for several thousand job cuts in sectors that contracted in October, including construction, manufacturing, and the professional and business services industry.

Though he was happy to see an overall upward trend in recent months, McMillion doubts it's the start of the big hiring that Maryland would need to get unemployment levels back to normal. With economic uncertainties across the world, and the federal government in a continual state of budget crisis, there's no shortage of what economists call "downside risks."

"I wouldn't expect severe job loss in Maryland over this next year, but I think stability or small gains is the most likely scenario," McMillion said.

Alexander M. Sanchez, Maryland's labor secretary, said he expected to see job creation proposals when the General Assembly reconvenes in January. In the meantime, his agency has been trumpeting a variety of business rankings that show Maryland in a good light — an effort to combat long-running concerns that the state's regulations and tax structure are anti-business.

Sanchez pointed to a November report from M&T Bank that puts Maryland 11th in the country for "business attractiveness." Chatter that Maryland is really at the other end of the spectrum "poses as much a threat to our recovery as anything else, and we have to push back," Sanchez declared.

Virginia — often seen as Maryland's prime competitor for business — is sixth on M&T's list.

Maryland's unemployment picture, which looked better than the nation's through the rough recession and lackluster recovery, continued to be less dour than many states' in October. The U.S. unemployment rate was 9 percent that month, significantly higher than Maryland's 7.2 percent.

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