October unemployment stayed at 6.1% in Washington area

December 6, 2011

Unemployment in the Washington region remained steady at 6.1 percent in October, according to a Labor Department report released Tuesday, driven by more government job losses and tepid gains in the private sector.

The federal government, which had largely shielded the region from the full brunt of the recession, lost 2,600 jobs from October 2010 to October 2011. Experts say the data reflect looming uncertainty over Congress’s activity — and inactivity — on federal spending.

“First, people got worried about euros, then the debt ceiling, then the debt,” said John McClain, deputy director of the Center for Regional Analysis at George Mason University, adding that the failure of the “supercommittee” to reach a debt-reduction deal probably will spur more anxiety in the next few months. “A lot of employers are uncertain, so they’re going to be cautious about hiring,” he said.

The Labor Department in recent months began releasing a seasonally adjusted unemployment figure for the metropolitan areas, allowing month-to-month comparisons. But it has not done so with the employment numbers, so job gains and losses can be compared only on a year-to-year basis.

The professional and business services sector continued to show the most strength, adding a net of 8,700 jobs from October 2010 to October 2011. But that is down substantially from the 22,700 jobs added in that sector during the 12-month period ending in March.

Staffing firms said businesses are becoming extremely selective in their hiring, focusing mainly on temps and people with expertise in information technology and finances. They are looking for specialists who can help them make money or save money.

“Companies tend to be slower in making decisions, almost with the idea that unemployment is high and they want to be picky to make sure they’re getting the right candidate,” said Mike Steinitz, district director of staffing firm Robert Half International who oversees the Washington area. “We see companies realizing that to continue to grow they need to add in areas that can help their efficiencies. There’s a lot of hiring of financial analysts to crunch numbers and forecast ways they can continue their profitability.”

Other sectors that gained jobs were leisure and hospitality, up 4,100 positions; education and health, up 1,900; and financial activities, up 400.

Job losers were construction, down 2,200, and retail, down 1,200.

Even with the slowdown in hiring, metropolitan Washington’s unemployment rate of 6.1 percent is still well below the nation’s 9 percent jobless level for October. The U.S. jobs report for November, released Friday, showed a drop in unemployment to 8.6 percent.

The region’s not-seasonally adjusted unemployment rate fell to 5.7 percent in October from 5.9 percent in October 2010.

Unemployment rose in 76 of the 372 metropolitan areas, dipped in 281 and remained steady in 15. El Centro, Calif., had the highest not-seasonally adjusted jobless rate among the 49 largest metropolitan areas — 28.9 percent. Bismarck, N.D., had the lowest — 2.4 percent.

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