State jobless rate continues to stay low


Maryland's unemployment rate held steady at 3.5 percent in February -- the second straight month at that low level -- as the state's jobless rate continues to run nearly a percentage point below the national average, according to a state report released yesterday.

The 2.96 million people who had jobs during February represented a record high for that month.

"The state's economy is growing robustly," said Paul Getman, an economist and the chief executive officer of RFA Dismal Sciences, a West Chester, Pa., forecasting and consulting firm that includes Maryland among the states it studies. "That's especially true in the services area.

"Federal cutbacks are over, and the high-tech area is growing very well. -- There's no real drain on the economy."

Many sectors reported job growth in February, said John P. O'Connor, secretary of the Maryland Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation. Among them: general contracting, communications, food stores, business services, engineering services and health services.

During the late 1980s and for much of the 1990s, Maryland's economy was troubled by cutbacks in defense spending, reductions in other government programs, corporate downsizing, a slide in manufacturing and a consolidation in the financial services sector that robbed the Baltimore area -- and the state -- of corporate headquarters, as well as the jobs that went with them. The state was extremely slow to recover from the recession of the early 1990s.

But, as the state unemployment rate of 3.5 percent underscores, the Maryland malaise is gone, said RFA's Getman. Technological know-how in the communications industry has replaced defense contracting as a high-growth sector, and Maryland has diversified, weaning itself off a reliance on federal dollars, economists say.

That's one reason the Maryland economy is faring much better than even the zooming national economy, which had an unemployment rate of 4.4 percent for February. RFA predicts that Maryland's job growth will be the 11th-fastest in the country this year and 15th next year -- a brisk pace for a Northeastern state, all of which tend to be shackled by slow population growth, Getman said.

Several of Maryland's counties are showing extremely fast and strong growth, with unemployment rates below the statewide average. The unemployment rates for February were 1.5 percent in Howard County, 1.6 percent in Montgomery County, 2.4 percent in Charles County and 2.6 percent in both Anne Arundel and Calvert counties. Carroll County had 3.3 percent unemployment, while Harford and Baltimore counties matched the state's 3.5 percent.

Baltimore's unemployment rate was 6.5 percent in February, down from 6.8 percent in January and 7.9 percent in February 1999.

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