Maryland's unemployment rate in January fell to the lowest level in three years, reflecting an improving economy that spurred the state's employers to add 5,000 jobs during the month, the U.S. Department of Labor announced Tuesday.
The state's jobless rate dropped to 6.5 percent, nearly 2 percentage points lower than the 8.3 percent national average, preliminary figures for January indicate.
It is the fifth straight month that Maryland added jobs and saw an improving jobless rate. Hiring has been brisk at technology companies, medical, service, law and investment firms and for construction projects, said Maryland Labor Secretary Alexander M. Sanchez.
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"The head winds that have been pushing against stronger job growth have been getting less fierce," said Heidi Shierholz, a labor economist with the Washington-based Economic Policy Institute. "When people are paid more wages, consumption rises, and that increases demand for goods and services that workers provide. So, companies need to hire more people."
Many of the 100 local, open positions at T. Rowe Price are technology-related, said Brian Lewbart, a spokesman for the Baltimore-based investment firm. It is also hiring in marketing and for back-office finance and accounting jobs, he said.
The company added more than 100 workers last year at its downtown and Owings Mills offices, and 203 overall, Lewbart said.
At Mindgrub, a Catonsville-based tech company that builds mobile apps and websites, business has grown quickly over the past six months. The company boosted its staff from 22 to 35 last summer and hopes to hire up to 10 more people in the next month, said Eloise Barnum, the firm's marketing lead.
"Everyone right now seems to be chomping at the bit to get a mobile app," said Barnum of the software for smartphones and tablets "The technology is growing, and Baltimore is a wonderful tech hub. It's on the map now."
Barnum said she senses more optimism at the college job fairs she attends.
"I feel better for the graduating class this year than I have over the last couple of years," she said.
Hiring by employers in the medical, service or business development fields has been strong so far this year, said Dawn Sloan, the Maryland-area director of Adecco Staffing, a New York-based recruiting firm.
"Last year was a turning point for us, and now our activity is the highest its been in two years," said Sloan, who covers a territory from Harford County to Montgomery County. "The encouraging thing is, now we're seeing more and more clients requesting full-time hires."
Tuesday's report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics also indicated that Maryland fared better in job growth last year than originally estimated. The agency said Maryland had 33,600 more jobs in December than a year earlier, up from the nearly 25,000-job gain it first estimated for that period. Nearly all of the state's job growth last year came in the private sector.
Offit Kurman, a 140-employee local law firm that has doubled in size in the past three years, added 15 to 20 attorneys last year, plus support staff, and expects to hire more this year, said Howard Kurman, a managing partner at the firm, which opened a Baltimore office this month and also has offices in Owings Mills, Howard County and the Washington, Philadelphia and Wilmington, Del., markets.
The firm has had success focusing on midsized clients, even as other law firms have had to downsize, Kurman said.
Despite positive job reports, "it's not clear to me we're on a self-sustaining path," said Shierholz, the economist. "The last few months have looked good, but we've had a couple of months of growth before that reverted to rocky job growth."
She pointed to January numbers, also released by the Labor Department, showing a ratio of 3.7 unemployed people for every job opening, an improvement from 6.7-to-1 shortly after the official end of the recession in July 2009, but higher than the 2.9-to-1 ratio at the peak of the previous downturn.
"If it were unambiguously clear that things were great out there, the survey would also show strength. ... There's a horrible musical chairs aspect to this. Things are improving, but it's still incredibly hard to find a job."
The Labor Department's monthly report estimates net job growth or losses — the bottom line. Under the surface, employers are adding and cutting jobs all the time, said Ting Zhang, a research assistant professor at the University of Baltimore's Jacob France Institute. She studies that phenomenon, known as "churning," which illustrates that some companies lay off workers even when the economy is in good shape and others hire during recessions.
Zhang found that expanding and new businesses created about 102,000 jobs in Maryland during the worst quarter of the recession, the first three months of 2009. But the gains were outnumbered by losses from businesses cutting back or closing, resulting in an overall loss of 82,000 jobs.
"It's not as if during a recession the whole economy stops. That's not true," said Zhang. "There is still always business opportunity there, the same as job opportunity. There's always some company still hiring."
The Labor Department said regional and state jobless rates generally fell across the United States. Maryland was among the 45 states and the District of Columbia reporting lower unemployment rates. Jobs were added in 37 states, while 13 states and the District of Columbia reported job losses, the government said.
Baltimore Sun reporter Jamie Smith Hopkins contributed to this article.