Maryland employers added 1,500 jobs in March — thanks entirely to growth in the private sector — but the state's unemployment rate inched up as the pool of would-be workers expanded more rapidly.
The jobless rate was 6.6 percent in March, up from 6.5 percent in February, the U.S. Department of Labor estimated Friday. That's because the labor force, the number of adults working or looking for work, grew by 4,200 people in March, according to the agency. An improving economic situation typically brings out more job seekers, as people who had been discouraged by earlier difficulties get back in the hunt.
The number of net new jobs was muted by cutbacks in government. The public sector shed 2,700 jobs in March, the Labor Department estimated, while private-sector employers added 4,200 jobs.
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Richard Clinch, director of economic research at the University of Baltimore's Jacob France Institute, said that as the nation's economy goes, so goes Maryland's.
"The only thing that's going to lead to growth is broad-based national recovery," he said. "Because the real driver of the Maryland economy, federal government, is not in a growth mode right now — there's certainly a long-term contraction issue."
The monthly employment numbers, which are preliminary and are often revised, are adjusted to try to account for seasonal patterns of hiring and layoffs. Many businesses expand in March as a matter of course, and so the federal government's adjusted numbers attempt to show growth beyond what typically occurs.
Such gains in March were focused in just three large sectors. Professional and business services, which includes such disparate fields as scientific research, computer engineering and accounting, added 3,400 jobs. Leisure and hospitality added 3,000 jobs. And trade, transportation and utilities — a sector that includes retailers — added 2,700 jobs.
All other sectors, including manufacturing, construction and finance, cut back.
But most of the state's sectors grew over the last year, a fact promoted by the state Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation. All told, the state added about 47,000 jobs over the past 12 months, according to the unadjusted numbers. That's a nearly 2 percent increase, 10th highest among the states.
The recent growth has filled a significant part of the recessionary hole in the state's employment base. To close the rest of the gap, Maryland employers would need to create about 28,000 additional jobs.
But even more growth would be necessary to push the state's unemployment rate back down to under 4 percent, where it stood in 2007. Just over 200,000 Marylanders are out of work and actively looking. Every year, more young adults enter the labor market.
Nationally, prospects for students soon to graduate from college are a bit better than they were for last year's seniors, but "the job market will remain fiercely competitive," outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas said in a statement this week.
One company in the market for new graduates is tax, auditing and advisory services firm PricewaterhouseCoopers. Its 272-employee Baltimore office wants to hire about 68 people this year, most of them straight out of college. That would be about 10 more new hires than last year, said Bill Corey, managing partner of PricewaterhouseCoopers' Baltimore office.
Corey said the unemployment rate for experienced accountants is very low — good for the workers, challenging for employers — but the number of accounting majors has increased as students aim for fields where the jobs are. Even so, those graduating near the top of their class "always have multiple offers," he said.
Corey said the company kept hiring during the downturn, wanting to prepare for the time when companies were again acquiring, taking on debt to expand and making other moves that require outside help.
"We've seeing some improvement now," he said. "We saw things starting to pick up — from our perspective — in the fall, and it's continuing."
Even as more employers expand, some are contracting. Retailer Best Buy told state regulators Friday that its previously announced plan to close its Hunt Valley store in May, part of a nationwide pullback, will mean 68 layoffs. Best Buy also expects to close its Inner Harbor store but has not said how many workers will lose their jobs there.
Another retailer, Sears, told state regulators it is closing a Gaithersburg store and laying off 82, also part of a larger downsizing.
Lisa A. Imler, a regional vice president with staffing firm Adecco, said employers are still cautious about expanding, prompting some to start with temporary positions and convert them to permanent jobs later.
The other trend she sees: employees being asked to "wear four or five hats."
"So be flexible, stay open-minded and learn as much as you can," said Imler, whose territory includes Maryland.