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September jobless rates down in D.C. and Virginia, up in Maryland

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By V. Dion Haynes
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 23, 2010; 3:03 AM

Unemployment rates in September dropped in the District and Virginia but rose by 0.2 percentage points in Maryland, according to federal government data released Friday. The numbers illustrate long-term improvement in the regional job market but prolonged reluctance among employers to significantly expand their payrolls because of lingering uncertainty about the economy.

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Maryland's rate jumped to 7.5 percent from 7.3 percent in August, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics data. The rates fell by 0.1 points to 9.8 percent in the District and to 6.8 percent in Virginia. The U.S. unemployment rate in September remained steady at 9.6 percent.

"This has just been a very tenuous time," said Ann D. Lang, senior economist at the Virginia Employment Commission. "Retail sales rose in September - there's some spending going on," but employers are "holding back a little and concerned about jobs and if we're going to get on a solid road here."

Nationwide, unemployment dropped in 23 states, rose in 11 and remained steady in 16. Nevada again had the highest unemployment rate in the nation, 14.4 percent. South Dakota had the lowest, 4.4 percent.

The employment picture improved in all three local jurisdictions during the past year, but the job growth was not always reflected in the monthly unemployment rates. The rate in Virginia remained steady from September to September, and fell by 0.2 points during that same time period in Maryland. The District experienced the most significant 12-month change, plunging from 11.1 percent to 9.8 percent.

Experts attributed Maryland's rate increase last month to a flood in the labor force, meaning that long-term unemployed people and newcomers to the state entered the job market looking for work but were largely unable to find it.

"Optimists would look at this and say the labor force growth is a sign of emerging confidence and eventually these people will find employment and the unemployment rate will move down," said Anirban Basu, chairman and chief executive of Sage Policy Group, a Baltimore economic and policy consulting firm. "Pessimists will say what has happened is that the population is growing, and the corresponding the labor force is, too, and many new entrants are not finding jobs quickly."

In Maryland, sectors with a net gain of jobs for the month were government, up 8,300; professional and business services, up 3,500; and education and health, up 1,900. The sectors with net losses were leisure and hospitality, down 4,000; retail, down 2,500; and manufacturing, down 800.

In the District, 90 percent of the jobs created - 14,900 - were in government. Other sectors that experienced a net gain of jobs were education and health services, up 2,300; and professional and business services, up 500. Among the sectors that lost jobs were retail, down 300.

Experts are concerned that many of the new jobs are going to highly educated and experienced people from outside the region rather than the low-skilled residents languishing on the unemployment rolls.

"We focus on professional and government jobs and government contractors," said Benjamin Orr, a research analyst at the Brookings Institution. "That's still a struggle for people with less education."

In Virginia, the job market is moving in the right direction, Lang said. The number of unemployed people fell by 4,600, and the number of employed people rose by 6,600. The labor statistics bureau revised Virginia's August jobless rate to 6.9 percent from 7 percent.

In Virginia, sectors that experienced a net gain of jobs were government, up 2,600; professional and business services, up 2,400; and retail and transportation, up 1,500. The sectors that lost jobs were education and health services, down 3,400; manufacturing, down 1,800; and construction, down 1,100.

Database editor Dan Keating contributed to this report. haynesd@washpost.com

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