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Md. jobless rate falls to 4.2% in May


Maryland employers added nearly 5,000 jobs last month, helping nudge the unemployment rate down to 4.2 percent, the U.S. Labor Department said yesterday.

The agency also reported that the state's labor force of 2.9 million soared by 20,500 people in May, an unusually large monthly increase that could signal growing faith in the economy - though local economists warned that the figure is based on preliminary data and will probably be revised downward.

Labor force and unemployment numbers are culled from a separate survey than job creation numbers, which explains why they don't add up. But everything points to the same conclusion about the economy, experts said.

"It was good news across the board," said John Hopkins, associate director for applied economics at RESI, Towson University's research and consulting arm. "The state continues to be poised to lead the nation."

The number of jobs swelled by more than 47,500 over the past year, the largest 12-month change since February 2001, right before the national recession. The state's unemployment rate in May remained well below the U.S. rate of 5.1 percent. The state's rate in April was 4.3 percent. The numbers are adjusted for seasonal variations.

The state picked up about 4,900 jobs in May. Maryland's rate of job growth in the last 12 months was 1.9 percent, compared with 1.5 percent for the country as a whole.

Employment is strong and likely to get stronger, said Richard P. Clinch, director of economic research at the University of Baltimore's Jacob France Institute. The institute's most recent survey of Maryland businesses found that more than 60 percent are planning on hiring for new positions this year.

"The outlook is very good," Clinch said.

Nearly 40 percent of the businesses surveyed were having trouble filling jobs, so the widening labor pool is a boon, he added. "We really need labor force participation to go up," he said.

Hopkins said the numbers showing a huge increase in the labor force last month may be exaggerated but seem to suggest a trend.

"Last year, there were still some people outside of the labor force looking in, waiting for the right time to enter," he said. "My opinion is that the time is now, for the people with the right skills."

Staffing companies agree.

"More and more clients are bringing back positions that they cut several years ago," said Renee P. Whalen, Baltimore-Washington regional vice president for Robert Half International Inc., a staffing firm that focuses on white-collar fields such as accounting and information technology.

At the same time, she said, companies need information technology help for projects put off during the economic doldrums of the early part of the decade. "That's creating a huge demand," she said.

The Labor Department's numbers show the sectors that expanded the most in the last 12 months were the state's old reliables: professional and business services, up 13,700 jobs; leisure and hospitality, up 13,500, and education and health services, up 9,200.

The one sector that contracted was manufacturing, which is struggling nationally and which has cut 3,100 jobs in Maryland over the year. Government, meanwhile, was on the low end of increases, adding 300 jobs.

Maryland escaped relatively unscathed from the 2001 recession, hit with tepid job growth rather than significant losses.

But Ann Wolfe, managing consultant for the Baltimore office of DBM, an international work force consulting firm, said her clients found local companies frustratingly slow to hire - until just recently.

"There's a mood of optimism," Wolfe said. "March, April started to get better, and [there's] just a strange feeling in the air - 'Hey, it's possible; there's stuff out there.'"

She said the improved economy has also made people more willing to take risks, like starting a business, because they believe there will be a job available for them if they have to retreat.

"They can try something in an entrepreneurial fashion and loop back, if necessary," Wolfe said.

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