Md. jobless down to 3.4%

The Baltimore Sun

Maryland employers added 4,300 jobs last month, pushing down the unemployment rate at a time when the national economy is struggling, the government reported yesterday.

Joblessness dropped to 3.4 percent from 3.5 percent in January, according to preliminary figures released by the Labor Department. That's the lowest it has been since early 2000, the last boom year for employment growth in Maryland.

Unemployment in the U.S., meanwhile, was 4.8 percent in February after two months of job losses.

Maryland added 32,200 jobs in the 12 months ending in February, the first time year-over-year job creation topped 30,000 since mid-2006, the government said.

"It doesn't mean that the state isn't going to be severely affected by the national downturn - I certainly expect that it will be - but compared to most other states, Maryland is doing remarkably well," said Charles W. McMillion, president and chief economist at MBG Information Services in Washington. "Many parts of the country have really been hit hard."

Maryland's 4,300-job gain last month was the fifth-largest in the country, according to the Labor Department.

But Richard P. Clinch, director of economic research at the University of Baltimore's Jacob France Institute, suspects that the state's numbers will look less rosy when the Labor Department revises them. Changes can be big: The government lowered its count of new jobs created in the state last year to 20,600, almost a third less than what it originally estimated.

Clinch is skeptical that Maryland truly added more than 30,000 jobs in the past 12 months after a long stretch of slower growth. There's too much downward pressure coming from the housing slump now, he said.

"There's nothing to drive this growth," he said. "Federal government spending hasn't changed that much."

The Labor Department arrives at its numbers by combining surveys of employers with complex mathematical modeling that attempts to deal with changes that surveys can't measure, such as companies forming and dying. The counts are more likely to initially fall short when the economy is revving up and to overstate when the job climate is declining, economists say.

Still, both McMillion and Clinch agree that the federal government is a stabilizing force in Maryland, pumping money into the economy in good times and bad.

McMillion said increases in government jobs and government contracting - as well as gains in the strong health care industry - help explain why employment in the state is holding up well. "The slowdown is really hardly being felt in Maryland right now, at least not on the jobs front," he said.

Only two major sectors pulled back in the past 12 months, according to the Labor Department. Financial activities, which includes banks and mortgage brokers, cut 3,100 jobs. Manufacturing shed 1,600 jobs.

Construction added 2,100 jobs in the past 12 months, a turnaround from earlier cuts. The sector includes commercial as well as residential building. Maryland's biggest gains came in education and health services, which added 10,600 jobs; government, up 7,600 jobs; professional and business services, which created 6,900 jobs; and leisure and hospitality, up 6,300 jobs.

Monthly figures are adjusted by the government to take into account seasonal variations in hiring and layoffs. The annual numbers are not adjusted.

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