The Baltimore metropolitan area posted one of the largest job gains among large regions last year, the Labor Department said yesterday.
With a 2.15 percent increase in jobs in December compared with the corresponding month a year earlier, Baltimore ranked ninth among the 39 metropolitan areas with average annual employment of more than 750,000.
That put it within spitting distance of fast-expanding places such as Washington, ranked fifth, and No. 7 Orlando, Fla. Las Vegas was the top performer.
All the region's major industries and government added employees during the 12 months that ended in December, led by a 5,500-job gain in educational and health services. Even manufacturing added 700 jobs - reversing a five-year trend of losses.
"The Baltimore economy has been growing very strongly," said Scott Hoyt, who follows Maryland for Economy.com in West Chester, Pa.
It's by far the best year the region has seen since 2000, the last boom time before the national recession.
Maryland as a whole was largely untouched by the downturn - on average, it has gained jobs every year of this decade - but the Baltimore area didn't fare as well. The average number of jobs dropped by nearly 10,000 between 2001 and 2003.
The jobs deficit was erased last year, and the end of 2004 was particularly strong. Employers added 27,100 new positions between December 2003 and December 2004.
Part of the credit goes to the area's urban core. Long an albatross around the neck of the region, the city actually gained 7,400 jobs during the 12 months. That's a growth rate of slightly less than 2 percent, one of the best in years.
"The city has really changed its economic fundamentals," said Richard P. Clinch, director of economic research for the University of Baltimore's Jacob France Institute, pointing to job and population growth downtown. "It's becoming a much more economically viable place."
Even so, the city remains more than 10,000 jobs short of its level 10 years ago.
One piece of recent good news is that health care - a burgeoning city industry - offers a way in for entry-level workers and a chance to move up, said Karen L. Sitnick, director of the Mayor's Office of Employment Development. .
Residents who come to her office in search of a job often need help that transcends economic climate - literacy education, for instance. Criminal backgrounds also are a big deterrent. But as job growth picks up, people on the margins have a better chance of getting hired.
"It will open the door for people to get on that first rung, and I think that's a good thing," Sitnick said.
Ann Wolfe, managing consultant of the Baltimore office of DBM, an international work force consulting company, said the job seekers she's helping are finally seeing improvements in the job market now. Last year was difficult for her clients, even though hiring had picked up overall.
"We've been contacted by executive recruiters in a way that we weren't ... before," she added.
Hoyt warned that the Baltimore area should not count on top-10 growth going forward because one of its economic drivers is federal spending. The large federal deficit ensures that spending can't continue to increase at the same brisk pace forever, he said.
"The rate of growth may slow," he said of regional employment. "But it's still going to be healthy growth."
Clinch predicted that employers in the region will add 20,000 to 25,000 jobs this year, slightly less than last year.
Top job gainers
The large metropolitan areas with the largest percentage increases in jobs, December 2004 versus December 2003:
1. Las Vegas - 5.30 percent
2. St. Louis - 2.98 percent
3. Charlotte, N.C.-Gastonia, N.C.-Rock Hill, S.C. - 2.89 percent
4. Riverside-San Bernardino, Calif. - 2.80 percent
5. Washington - 2.75 percent
6. Phoenix-Mesa, Ariz. - 2.74 percent
7. Orlando, Fla. - 2.35 percent
8. Milwaukee-Waukesha, Wis. - 2.19 percent
9. Baltimore - 2.15 percent
10. Tampa-St. Petersburg-Clearwater, Fla. - 2.11 percent
Source: U.S. Department of Labor