Maryland employers add 2,300 jobs in March

Private employers in Maryland led the way to modest job gains in March, and the state unemployment rate remained essentially unchanged since February, according to preliminary figures released Friday by the U.S. Department of Labor.

The agency estimated a net gain of 2,300 jobs, and posted the state's unemployment rate at 5.6 percent, meaning 174,500 people in the state were unemployed last month. The March national unemployment rate was 6.7 percent.

Job gains occurred chiefly in the private sector, led by retail, transportation and utilities with 2,200 jobs; followed by professional and business services, including technical fields, scientific research and cybersecurity, with 1,200; and financial services with 600. These were offset by losses in education and health, leisure, manufacturing and construction. Government employment was up by an estimated 500 jobs.

Gary Keith, a regional economist with M&T Bank, called Maryland's job growth "a bit of a mixed picture," as the state as a whole lags behind the Baltimore metropolitan area. Maryland's job growth in the past year is 0.5 percent — roughly a third of the national average of 1.6 percent — while the Baltimore metropolitan area nearly matches the national figure with 1.3 percent.

Maryland's Washington suburbs have been slow to recover from effects of the federal budget stalemate and government shutdown late last year, Keith said, even with the budget agreement Congress reached in January. As consumer spending accounts for some 70 percent of economic activity overall, growth will hinge on how secure people feel about their jobs.

"Even with the budget in place, we haven't seen any rebound" in the Washington suburbs, Keith said. The spring may tell if people whose jobs depend on the federal government are spending more or are still in "wait-and-see mode," he said.

The economic fortunes of the Baltimore area — including six counties and Baltimore City — are tied somewhat less to the federal government, with a "nicely diversified mix of businesses," he said, although the city itself has not fared so well in job creation. Of the 13,000 jobs gained in the region since March 2013, Keith said, all but 100 emerged in the counties outside the city that are considered part of the metropolitan area: Baltimore, Howard, Anne Arundel, Carroll, Harford and Queen Anne's.

Bradley Turner, an associate economist with Moody's Analytics in West Chester, Pa., said the March numbers show lingering effects of a harsh winter and cold spring, which he said are "causing the employment picture to look a little worse than it is."

He said he sees the cybersecurity center at Fort Meade in Anne Arundel County and the port of Baltimore as continuing sources of strength, particularly as the expansion of the Panama Canal is expected to bring more business to the port.

Recent local job additions are being made by Vivint Solar, a Utah-based company with 2,200 employees that installs and maintains residential solar arrays and sells the power to the homeowner. Last year, the company opened an office with 55 employees in Beltsville, and it plans to hire about 85 people for sales, installation and project management at new locations in Baltimore County and the city of Frederick.

Vivint already has installations in 11 counties in Maryland — one of seven states and the District of Columbia where the company has operations. Chance Allred, vice president for sales, said he likes the well-educated workforce here and sees significant growth potential in a state where residents seem receptive to solar power, and where the company's dealings with local governments and utility companies have gone well.

"The process goes very smoothly," Allred said. "We have had nothing but a positive experience in the state."

arthur.hirsch@baltsun.com