Maryland employers added 4,700 jobs in March, gains driven by the private sector, the U.S. Department of Labor estimated Friday.
It was the fourth straight month of increases, though at a lower level than the previous three. The expansion brought Maryland within about 5,000 jobs of finally regaining the number of positions the state had before the effects of the last recession set in — compared with nearly 2.9 million jobs still to go nationwide, more than the country added in all of last year.
Maryland's unemployment rate remained unchanged in March at 6.6 percent.
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"The state is looking pretty good," said Gus Faucher, senior economist at PNC Financial Services Group. "The job gains look to be pretty broad-based."
Increases were spread through a large part of the private sector, including construction, financial activities and the long-shrinking manufacturing industry. But government agencies shed 400 jobs, according to the Labor Department estimates.
The figures are preliminary and adjusted to try to account for seasonal patterns in hiring and layoffs.
Thanks to strong earlier gains — 7,500 jobs in January and 9,800 jobs in February, according to the newest federal estimates — Maryland outpaced all but three other states for its rate of growth so far this year.
And Gov. Martin O'Malley's spokeswoman, Raquel Guillory, was quick to point out that Maryland's private-sector growth over the last year was more than double Virginia's. (The two states' business climates are often compared with each other by local business leaders who want Maryland to emulate its neighbor.)
The looming question for Maryland — along with Virginia, D.C. and other places with a significant federal presence — is how the federal budget cuts known as sequestration will play out in employment. Economists expect cutbacks among federal contractors. And they say that income cuts from furloughs of federal workers — some beginning this month — will ripple into the retail sector and everywhere else those workers spend money.
"Maryland is pretty heavily exposed," Faucher said.
Daraius Irani, director of the Regional Economic Studies Institute at Towson University, wrote in an analysis Friday that the local economy appears "more resilient" than expected — but he added that "the effects from sequestration may lag throughout 2013 and beyond as opposed to being an overnight change."
What that will mean for job growth is of particular interest to unemployed residents, who numbered about 207,000 in March. Though Maryland's jobs are almost back to prerecession levels, the number of jobless adults is not — new workers join the hunt every year.
The state had about 109,000 fewer unemployed residents at the beginning of 2008.
In March, Maryland's biggest job gain was in the professional and business services sector, up 3,500 jobs. Other sectors with sizable increases included construction, up 2,800 jobs; education and health services, which added 1,100 jobs; and financial activities, up 900 jobs.
But retail-heavy trade, transportation and utilities shed 1,600 jobs, and leisure and hospitality lost 1,100 jobs.
Manufacturing was an unusual bright spot. After losing 4,000 jobs in 2012, many due to the Sparrows Point steel mill closure, the sector has expanded every month this year, according to the federal estimates. Manufacturers added 600 jobs in March, the Labor Department said.
Mike Galiazzo, president of the Regional Manufacturing Institute of Maryland, said he's not hearing of any major expansions. But he's also not hearing the chorus of woe sung by businesses when the economy was bad.
"It just may be that there's a little bit of growth in a lot of different areas," he said.