The Washington Post

Jobless rate in Washington area remains unchanged at 5.4 percent

The unemployment rate in the Washington region held steady at 5.4 percent in September, a Tuesday report from the Labor Department showed, as job growth remained only moderate in the sectors that traditionally have been strongholds of the local economy.

The professional services sector added 11,300 jobs from September 2011 to September 2012, while another key sector, government, added 7,500 jobs in the same period.

These sectors “continue to lag behind their normal performance,” said Stephen S. Fuller, director of the Center for Regional Analysis at George Mason University.

If these areas continue to underperform, Fuller said, that could have a ripple effect on other industries in the region.

“That will take a toll on the bottom end of the economy, as there are fewer people to buy goods and services,” he said.

The strongest job growth came from the education and health-services sector, which added 13,200 jobs. That segment has shown continued strength throughout 2012, accounting for nearly one-third of all the new jobs in the region.

Other industries that saw job growth include construction, which added 3,700 jobs; leisure and hospitality, 4,900 jobs; and financial activities, 3,900 jobs.

The retail sector shed 3,500 jobs. Fuller said that decrease is likely because these businesses are hiring more part-time staff members to do work previously done by full-timers, and part-time workers are not counted in the Labor Department’s data.

Overall, the region added 41,300 jobs from September 2011 to September 2012, including 33,800 in the private sector.

“By and large, the impact of anticipated downsizing of the federal government, reductions in defense procurement, have yet to rock the Washington metro area economy,” said Anirban Basu, chief executive of Sage Policy Group, an economic consulting firm in Baltimore. “Undoubtedly these factors have helped to suppress regional economic growth but have not yet served to reverse it.”

The Labor Department releases seasonally adjusted jobless rates for metropolitan areas, which allows for month-to-month comparisons. However, the number of job gains and losses are not seasonally adjusted, so this data can only be used to make year-over-year comparisons.

The jobless rate in the Washington area is well below the national unemployment rate, which slipped to 7.8 percent in September.

But economists say job growth here does not stack up as favorably as it used to when compared with major metropolitan areas across the country. Houston, Dallas and Seattle, among other cities, now have job growth that outperforms that of the Washington region.

“We’re not leading the pack as we used to,” Fuller said.

Unemployment rates declined in 345 of 372 metropolitan areas and increased in 22 areas. Rates were unchanged in five areas.

Yuma, Ariz., registered the nation’s highest jobless rate of 29.7 percent. Unemployment was lowest in Bismarck, N.D., where the rate was 2.2 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 economic news.



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