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Maryland employers created 1,500 jobs last month, but the number of out-of-work residents on the hunt for work grew even faster.

That's what estimates released Friday by the U.S. Department of Labor show, a sign that the job market remains dour nearly two years after the nation's economy fell into recession. Maryland unemployment rose to 7.3 percent in October from 7.2 percent the month before.

That's a lot better than U.S. joblessness of more than 10 percent, but it's a level of competition for job openings that the state hasn't seen since the country was shaking off the remnants of a double-dip recession in 1983.

The big driver in Maryland job creation last month was government. The sector added 2,800 jobs, helping to offset the 3,400 jobs cut in the hard-hit construction sector, according to the Department of Labor's estimates.

The numbers, which are preliminary and could be revised, are adjusted to try to account for normal hiring and layoff patterns that come with changes in season.

Employers have created jobs in fits and starts this year, but the trend is downward. Maryland had about 51,000 fewer jobs last month than it did the year before - about as many positions added in the state in 2006 and 2007 combined.

Richard P. Clinch, director of economic research at the University of Baltimore's Jacob France Institute, sees hope on the horizon in reports showing general economic growth. The U.S. economy, still contracting in the spring, started growing in the summer, according to an October report by the federal government. But businesses rarely feel confident enough to start hiring in the early part of a recovery.

"You're going to see modest gains in employment starting, hopefully, now," Clinch said. "But I don't think you have self-sustaining job creation for six to 12 months."

Mitch Halbrich, a Baltimore-based senior managing director for The Mergis Group, a staffing firm that helps companies fill openings in professions such as accounting and marketing, said employers seem to be hiring only to deal with "a glaring hole" created by too-deep cuts or by the exit of a critical person.

More signs of life are showing up on the temporary-job side, but companies are generally talking to Mergis about staffing needs in the future rather than the present.

"It feels like maybe we've hit the bottom," Halbrich said. "We're not bouncing and coming back up - it's just staying pretty constant at a low ebb."

Just over 215,000 Marylanders were out of work and looking last month, an almost 50 percent increase from a year ago. The impact isn't hitting the state evenly. Baltimore's unemployment rate was 10.6 percent in September, the most recent numbers. The affluent Howard and Montgomery counties, on the other hand, recorded unemployment of less than 5.5 percent.

But Baltimore's woes have nothing on Detroit's, where one in four people is out of work and looking.

"The good news is, it's not as bad here as it is in Detroit," Clinch said. "The bad news is, it's going to be a long time until it gets better."

Christian S. Johansson, the state's secretary of business and economic development, said he's seeing reasons for optimism. He pointed to this week's announcement that a port company plans to take over and upgrade container operations at Seagirt Marine Terminal, a deal expected to increase need for construction workers and create 2,700 permanent jobs when construction finishes in 2014.

Though many Maryland sectors have felt the pinch of recession, Johansson noted that the pain has been concentrated in construction and retail. The education and health services sector - which includes hospitals - added almost 9,000 jobs over the year. Professional and business services, leisure and hospitality and government all had increases, too.

"We're still seeing gains in knowledge industries," Johansson said.

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