Maryland's unemployment rate improved slightly in May, dropping to 6 percent from 6.2 percent in April, the state government announced yesterday.
But economists and business people said that the job market in Maryland, while still better than the national average of 6.9 percent for the same month, continued to be soft.
The national rate rose to 7 percent in June, the U.S. Department of Labor announced yesterday. Maryland's statistics lag the nation's by a month.
"We've had a real slowing in the recovery," said Michael A. Conte, a regional economist at the University of Baltimore.
Dr. Conte said that while the job trend since the beginning of the year has been good, it hasn't kept pace with normal hiring improvements expected each spring.
Tom Finn, sales manager for the Varex Group, a lab equipment maker in Burtonsville, agreed.
Although June is usually one of the company's best months, "things continue to be flat," he said.
Varex reduced its staff through a buyout to only 12 workers during the recession, and the remaining workers are putting in longer hours. But Varex won't add back any permanent workers until the current staff is "hanging on by our fingertips," he said.
As in recent months, the government's two employment surveys -- one of people at home, and one of employers -- reported conflicting results.
The household survey found that the number of employed persons in Maryland actually declined in May by 32,659. The state's unemployment rate dropped because the number of people looking for work fell farther -- by 40,639.
But many employers -- including restaurants and business services, reported hiring in May.
While noting that job creation continues to lag, state officials accentuated the positive signs, such as a lengthening of the average manufacturing work week by half an hour, to 41.2 hours, which is generally viewed as a precursor to hiring.
"The drop in the state's unemployment rate and the increasing work hours and wages for Marylanders are favorable signs that show the state's economy continues to improve," Mark Wasserman, secretary of the state's Department of Economic and Employment Development, said in a statement.
Baltimore's job market was one of the few to worsen in May.
The city lost more than 4,300 jobs, and the unemployment rate rose a fifth of a percentage point to 10.1 percent.
But the six-county area around the city fared much better, as the unemployment rate improved slightly, to 7 percent.
The suburbs of Washington continued to improve, as the area reported a 4.2 percent unemployment rate, down 0.1 percentage point from April. Montgomery County, continuing to have the lowest unemployment rate in the state, saw its rate fall 0.1, to 3.2 percent.
As a region, the Western Maryland area continued to suffer the state's worst unemployment, though the economic climate appeared to be improving.
Unemployment in the three-county area fell to 8.7 percent in May, down from 10 percent.