Regional job market stuck in neutral in May

After showing modest signs of picking up in April, the regional job market largely appeared stuck in neutral in May, with fresh data from the Labor Department showing slight job gains or losses in the District, Maryland and Virginia.

In the District, the jobless rate hovered at 7.5 percent for the third straight month as the economy added 1,700 positions. The greatest job gains came from the education and health services industry, which added 1,000 positions. The city’s second-largest sector, professional services, also gained jobs. These increases, however, were in part offset by a loss of 1,300 jobs in government.

Stephen Fuller, the economist who directs the Center for Regional Analysis at George Mason University, said the weak jobs numbers for May are likely a sign that the stronger April numbers were something of a blip.

“April was distorted by jobs being filled that had been left unfilled in earlier months,” Fuller said, meaning employers likely increased hiring that month only to make up for a lack of activity during the punishing winter. In other words, that pickup, to Fuller said, wasn’t a result of perceived improvement in the economy.

Virginia’s jobless rate rose from 4.9 percent to 5.1 percent. But a positive development contributed to the uptick: Some 16,000 workers joined the commonwealth’s labor force last month — a sign that perhaps some previously sidelined workers are more optimistic about their ability to find jobs.

Despite adding 1,500 professional services jobs and 1,100 education and health-services positions, Virginia shed 1,100 jobs overall in May. The steepest losses were in the construction industry, where 1,100 positions disappeared, and the hospitality sector, which went down 2,200 positions.

Maryland lost 1,300 jobs last month, as its unemployment rate crept up from 5.5 percent to 5.6 percent. The state saw especially large job losses in the professional services industry, which shed 5,500 positions. The state’s largest employment category — government — lost 600 positions.

Fuller said the lackluster job market isn’t the only cloud over the regional economy.

“Housing prices have stopped growing,” Fuller said. “Wealthier people, or people that have
higher-cost houses, are putting them on the market, and all the demand is on the bottom end.”

The national unemployment rate remained unchanged at 6.3 percent in May as the economy added 217,000 jobs.

The jobless rate fell in 20 states last month, while 16 states saw rate increases.

Capital Business is The Post’s weekly publication focusing on the region’s business community. For more local business news, go to www.capbiz.biz.

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 economic news.
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