D.C. jobless rate increases slightly to 4.9 percent

The unemployment rate in the Washington region ticked up from 4.8 percent to 4.9 percent in March, the Labor Department reported Tuesday, amid a job market that has lost steam as the federal government has tightened spending.

The Washington metropolitan area added 5,500 jobs in the 12-month period that ended in March. As recently as last fall, the job market was showing year-over-year gains of at least 14,500 jobs.

Much of the softness in the market is due to relatively steep job losses in two critical sectors, professional services and federal government. The professional services industry, which includes the region’s government contractors, shed 11,500 positions between March 2013 and March 2014. During the same period, the federal government category lost 11,400 positions.

The leisure and hospitality sector added 8,800 jobs. That industry was the leader for local job growth for most months last year.

“The quality of jobs being added in the region has not been particularly elevated, with leisure and hospitality often dominating,” said Anirban Basu, chief executive of Sage Policy Group, a Baltimore economic consulting firm. “Those jobs do not offer the types of multiplier effects” that higher-paying ones do.

Additional job growth came from the education and health services sector, which gained 8,300 positions, and retail, which added 5,600. Meanwhile, the area’s manufacturing industry lost 2,600 jobs, and the information sector lost 2,700.

James Bohnaker, an economist with Moody’s Analytics, says he expects the job market to improve later this year.

“As we get into the latter half of 2014, you’ll slowly see some lower-wage jobs start to grow more strongly,” Bohnaker said. “And then eventually the higher-wage jobs, the things that Washington is typically known for, will come around.”

Jobless rates fell in 333 of 372 metropolitan areas. They rose in 30 areas and stayed the same in nine.

The national jobless rate was 6.7 percent in March, unchanged from the previous month.

The Labor Department on Friday is scheduled to release national employment figures for April. Analysts forecast that the economy added 220,000 jobs last month and that the unemployment rate slipped to 6.6 percent.

Sarah Halzack is The Washington Post's national retail reporter. She has previously covered the local job market and the business of talent and hiring. She has also served as a Web producer for business and economics news.
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