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Jobless rate in Md. dips to another low; Rate in Dec. sank to 2.8%, the 3rd drop in a row for state; City rate falls to 5.6%; Howard's 1.3% rate was best; worst was Worcester's 13.5%; Employment


Amid the longest economic expansion in U.S. history, Maryland's unemployment rate dipped to a record low in December, state officials said yesterday.

The state's unemployment rate sank to 2.8 percent in the month, breaking the previous record of 3.1 percent set in November, and beating the national average of 3.7 percent in December.

Howard County's stunningly low rate of 1.3 percent was the lowest of the four counties that had jobless rates below 2 percent.

Maryland is "just steaming ahead, doing just very, very well," said Charles McMillion, chief economist at MBG Information Services, a Washington economics firm.

The low unemployment figure for December marked the third consecutive month Maryland's rate set a record. It also was the lowest unemployment rate since the state started tracking in 1978.

Maryland is benefiting from a vibrant U.S. economy, which has expanded for a record 107 consecutive months, and shows little sign of slowing. Since the U.S. recovery began in March 1991, 21.5 million jobs have been created, productivity has soared, inflation has been controlled and unemployment has fallen to its lowest levels in 30 years. In the period, Maryland created 280,100 jobs, McMillion said.

Maryland, which struggled to regain its footing in the 1990s, is enjoying the boom. "I am amazed at the way things have transpired," said J. Patrick Bradley, director of economic and investment research at Mercantile-Safe Deposit & Trust Co.

Unemployment rates either declined or held steady in all but four of Maryland's 23 counties: Worcester, Garrett, Kent and Dorchester, according to state officials.

Unemployment in Baltimore City dropped to 5.6 percent; Anne Arundel County, 2.1 percent; Baltimore County, 2.9 percent; Carroll County, 2 percent; Harford County, 2.3 percent; Howard County, 1.3 percent; and Queen Anne's County, 2.2 percent. "I have to tell you -- I have been surprised for several months now," said Patrick Arnold, director of labor market analysis and information at the state Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation.

"It is increasingly difficult to believe that the unemployment rate could continue to fall below these levels, but the economy has been surprising us for many months now with its strong performance."

Several counties still have high unemployment, with Worcester topping the list at 13.5 percent, followed by Garrett's 7.7 percent.

Arnold said December was strong for two reasons: Companies hired more workers to meet the holiday shopping rush, and several sectors continued to thrive, notably health care, business services, warehousing and trucking.

Diversification has been a key factor to Maryland's low unemployment and economic success, McMillion said. "It doesn't have any really outstanding star, but it doesn't have any real laggards either. Even manufacturing gained jobs last year."

He said 47,300 jobs were created in Maryland from December 1998 to December 1999.

During that period, employment in Maryland grew an average of 2 percent, which was higher than Virginia's 1.9 percent, but lower than the nation's 2.1 percent average growth, he said.

Maryland's highly skilled and educated work force quickly embraced technology, McMillion said. That, in turn, has made companies here grow and become more profitable.

"We do not have any semiconductor chip factories in Maryland, but Maryland firms and workers have adapted to the new information technology age extremely well," he said. "Marylanders don't make computers, but they use the hell out of them."

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