Can there be too much of a good thing? An unemployment rate that's too low?
The Washington area will find out in the months ahead.
In November, the region's jobless rate dropped to a minuscule 2.3 percent, down from 2.5 percent in October and 2.8 percent in November a year ago.
The onset of the holiday shopping season, the continuation of a region-wide construction spurt and the relentless growth of technology companies soaked up the handful of available workers in the Washington area. The metro unemployment rate dropped to the lowest level in the 10 years that this economic indicator has been published.
Virginia's rate slid to 2.6 percent, from 2.7 percent in October -- the lowest rate in 47 years. Maryland wasn't far behind, with a jobless rate of just 3.1 percent, down from 3.3 percent in October.
That's the good news.
But November also brought more evidence that a shortage of workers has begun to crimp businesses expansion.
Employment continued to surge in Northern Virginia last month, but job growth is slowing down in other parts of the state and in Maryland.
"The greatest concern for future growth in Northern Virginia is the tight labor market," warned economist Christine Chmura in the latest edition of Virginia Economic Trends. The scarcity of workers could trigger inflationary wage increases, followed by higher interest rates, or force businesses to scale back, the Richmond-based analyst said.
The region added 68,100 salaried jobs in the year that ended in November, an increase of 2.6 percent -- a noticeable slowdown from job growth a year ago.
In both Maryland and Virginia, employment grew only 1.9 percent in the year that ended in November. That's a considerable slowdown from annual job growth rates of around 2.6 percent at the beginning of this year.
Job growth in the District for the year ending in November was 0.7 percent -- a small but still positive sign for the capital's economic recovery. Employment in the Maryland suburbs increased by 1.9 percent, while Northern Virginia's job growth was a powerful 4.2 percent in the November 1998 to November 1999 period.
Job growth, of course, is one measure of a region's well-being. While Maryland's current performance may indicate a slowing economy, it remains one of the nation's wealthiest states.
Northern Virginia's economy is the envy of the region, but the pell-mell growth has provoked a political backlash and could backfire in places if the economy does slow down later this year, stranding some speculative office developers.
Maryland employers remain confident about their prospects in 2000, according to a recent survey -- 78 percent expected their revenues to increase and half said they plan to hire more workers. But hiring is a major worry.
"The obvious threat is a tight labor market. Around 70 percent of businesses are having worker shortages that impact their ability to do business," said Richard Clinch of the University of Baltimore, which conducts a quarterly confidence survey of 250 Maryland high-growth companies.
"Can they find the workers they need? Long-term, that's the biggest threat to the expansion. There will be some downsizing in retail that could free up some workers," Clinch said, but that won't help technology companies.
"It's tight everywhere, but the real shortages that hurt growth are in the high end of the labor market," he said.
Meanwhile, in the one place where workers might be available -- the central cities such as the District, Baltimore and Richmond -- available workers don't have the skills employers want.
"In the cities, you have three potential workers for every job being created. It's certainly a big problem in D.C., and a giant one in Baltimore," Clinch said.
CAPTION: Job Growth (This graphic was not available)