D.C. Suburbs Remain Hot Job Markets
District Shows Higher Unemployment Rate
By Neil Irwin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, May 22, 2004; Page E01
The job market in the District appeared to soften in April, according to Labor Department data released yesterday, as the employment outlook became rosier in Maryland and Virginia.
Unemployment in the District rose to 7.3 percent in April, from 6.9 percent in March, as the city lost 1,400 jobs, according to the data. The health care and education sectors were the biggest losers. Construction companies in the city also shed jobs. Maryland gained 9,500 jobs in April as its unemployment rate was unchanged at 4 percent. Virginia added 10,000 jobs as joblessness edged down to 3.4 percent, from 3.5 percent.
Economists caution that the jobs data can fluctuate wildly month to month, especially for a small jurisdiction like the District. Given broad signs that the District economy is growing handily, some economists theorized that the uptick in unemployment was the random result of sampling error.
"These numbers bounce around a lot, so let's wait a couple of months and see what happens before we determine there's a trend there," said Charles W. McMillion, president of District-based economic consulting firm MBG Information Services. "The District is doing better than it has in a long time."
For the year ended in April, the city had gained 5,300 jobs, which in percentage terms is a stronger gain than in the nation as a whole. Gregory P. Irish, director of the District's Department of Employment Services, pointed to those and other data as signs of underlying strength in the city's job market, attributing the April data to statistical fluke.
"What we're seeing in our statistics is an economy that's doing pretty well," said Irish.
The weak numbers in the District do, however, illustrate a broader trend. During the economic slump of 2001 and 2002, the District continued generating jobs as the suburbs lost them by the thousands. But with a recovery afoot and businesses expanding again, the Washington suburbs are now the region's biggest generators of jobs.
For the year ended in April, Northern Virginia added 48,400 jobs, and suburban Maryland added 14,700, compared with the District's 5,300.
"The narrow base of the District economy does not serve it as well during an expansion as the suburban economies do," said Stephen S. Fuller, a professor at George Mason University who tracks the region's economy.
The data show lingering weakness in the District's job market, where joblessness is perennially much higher than in nearby jurisdictions. There were 22,300 unemployed people in April in the District, 1,200 more than in March.
The government surveys 970 District residents each month, and the results are adjusted with other employment data to calculate the city's unemployment rate. The Bureau of Labor Statistics, which issues the data, does not calculate the margin of error for the monthly data from individual jurisdictions, but economists said it is significant.
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