District unemployment reached 12.1 percent in December

By V. Dion Haynes and Hamil R. Harris
Saturday, January 23, 2010; A10

Unemployment reached a record 12.1 percent in the District in December, keeping the city's jobless rate well above national levels and much higher than in Virginia and Maryland.

The District's unemployment rate rose from 11.8 percent in November, according to a Bureau of Labor Statistics report released Friday, even as the nation's jobless rate stabilized at 10 percent in December. Maryland's unemployment level increased to 7.5 percent from 7.3 percent, and Virginia's rose to 6.9 percent after staying at 6.6 percent for four straight months.

The District's 12.1 percent jobless rate is the highest since the government began collecting the data in 1976, and went up after having dipped in November from a previous high of 11.9 percent in October.

Unemployment is particularly high for the District's black residents, whose rate is three times the level of whites.

"Right now I will wash bathrooms and do anything because I have a family that I am trying to support," said Charles Nurse, 54, who was among 10 people sitting in the lobby of an unemployment office in Northeast Washington on Friday. They were waiting to enter the area where dozens were searching for jobs at computer terminals.

Nurse, who has a civil engineering degree and is a certified auto mechanic, added that some potential employers "say I am overqualified. It is kind of depressing, but I am not going to let that hold me down."

Bernadette Johnson, 62, agreed. "I have a master's degree, and I can't even get a secretarial job because they say I am overqualified," said Johnson, who lost her job as program director at a D.C. charter school. "The hardest part is, 75 percent of the jobs that I apply for, they don't even call you back."

The District rate is sparking anger among some elected officials, who are calling for more action to address the problem.

"It's a disgrace and a crime, and residents should be outraged," said D.C. Council member Kwame R. Brown (D-At Large), who wants to boost vocational education for adults and investigate the placement rates of job-training programs.

While the numbers point out disparities between racial groups and, in Virginia and Maryland, highlight weaknesses in the manufacturing sector, they also illustrate the relative strength of the region's economy, which has been shielded from the full brunt of the recession because the federal government has added thousands of jobs in the past year.

Unemployment climbed in the District despite an added 600 jobs last month, according to the city's Department of Employment Services. And it gained 6,100 jobs from December 2008 to December 2009. But because the labor force in the District has a large proportion of undereducated people, experts said, the majority of those high-paying jobs usually go to more qualified residents of suburban Maryland and Northern Virginia. Less-educated residents typically work in construction, which lost 200 jobs last month; in leisure and hospitality, which lost 400 jobs last month; and in retail and transportation, which lost 500 jobs last month.

Cynthia Ward, vice president of market and account services at the recruiting and career management firm Lee Hecht Harrison, said candidates who grew up in the District often are unable to compete with their suburban counterparts because of the troubled city school system.

"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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