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District unemployment reached 12.1 percent in December

"I graduated from the D.C. public schools, where I had been an A and B student. When I went to college, I discovered I was way behind [other students], especially in writing, and I had to work hard" to catch up, said Ward, who is on a task force seeking ways to better prepare District residents for higher-skills jobs.

Although Virginia's rate had remained steady at 6.6 percent since August, it lost hundreds of manufacturing jobs in December. Some auto-supply and paper companies shut down or are in the process of closing, and experts say those industries -- and jobs -- are unlikely to return.

"The economy is changing, evolving, and moving away from manufacturing," said Ann D. Lang, senior economist at the Virginia Employment Commission.

Automotive-parts maker Intermet closed plants in Lynchburg and Radford, Va., putting more than 300 people out of work. The company had been weakened by foreign competition, as the Detroit Three automakers began buying more parts overseas. In August 2008, the Fort Worth-based Intermet filed for bankruptcy protection, liquidating plants in Georgia and Minnesota.

Then the company was hit by the recession: Consumer demand plunged, and the government forced General Motors and Chrysler to reorganize in Chapter 11 bankruptcy proceedings.

"It became not profitable to operate," said Walter Vrobel, a human resources manager who was laid off but is working on a contract to finalize closure of the facilities. "The prices of the scrap iron we needed increased dramatically over the years. Foreign competition, a depressed automotive economy and the GM and Chrysler bankruptcy had a ripple effect through the auto supplies" sector.

Maryland added jobs in the federal government, education and health care. But in the 12-month period ending in December, state officials said, it experienced a 9.7 percent decline in real estate and leasing and an 18.4 percent decline in manufacturing and construction.

"Manufacturing is changing from mechanical-based to more technology-based," said Andy Moser, assistant director of the Maryland Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation. The key is "to get people ready for jobs to come."

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