As unemployment climbs throughout the country, metropolitan Washington, with a jobless rate of 6 percent, demonstrates once again the strength of a service economy over one with an industrial base.
Throughout Maryland and Virginia, many segments of the economy, especially manufacturing, are in trouble, but the unemployment rate in both states still lags behind the national average. The latest figures, compiled for August, show 8.7 percent unemployment in Maryland and 7.3 percent in Virginia. The District of Columbia, with 11.2 percent, exceeds the national average for September of 10.1 percent, but analysts note that the government payroll has kept Washington from suffering as much as cities of comparable size.
"Washington is definitely not recessionproof, but it is resilient," said Rufus Daniels, chief of the District's division of labor market information, research and analysis.
The reason, he said, is the dominance of government in the area economy, as well as other service industries that provide lodging, health, retail, financial and legal services, among others.
According to the most recent Bureau of Labor Statistics ranking of states, completed in July, the District ranked 10th highest in unemployment, with Maryland 31st and Virginia 38th.
In Virginia, unemployment ranges from 18.8 percent in Russell County, in the coal region near the Tennessee border, to 2.9 percent in Prince William on the southern edge of the Washington metropolitan area.
Despite a 0.6 percent increase in the jobless rate over a year ago, the Northern Virginia economy remains the strongest of any region in the state, with 4.4 percent unemployment.
Most of the decrease in suburban Virginia jobs has been caused by the federal government, which laid off 18,000 workers in the Washington area, according to Bill Mezger, assistant director of research and analysis for the Virginia Employment Commission.
Likewise, in Maryland, there are pockets of high unemployment, particularly in Hagerstown, where 18.2 percent of the work force is out of a job, and in Baltimore, where the unemployment rate is 11.6 percent. But the counties near Washington that depend on service jobs fared much better. Only 4.3 percent of Montgomery County is out of work and in Prince George's County, 6 percent.
Manufacturing throughout the state has suffered a general depression in the last year, which has helped raise state-wide unemployment by 25 percent during the period.
Much of Maryland's bad fortune has been caused by declines in steel and truck production and shipbuilding, a situation worsened this week by the news that the Bethlehem Steel Corp. plans to close its Key Highway ship repair yard Dec. 31, adding another 600 workers to the 4,880 already laid off in the Baltimore shipyards. In Hagerstown, about half of the 4,600 Mack Truck plant employes are out of work.
But the growth in nonmanufacturing jobs has improved the state's record. "The reason why Maryland is experiencing less unemployment than states in the immediate area, like Pennsylvania and Delaware, is that we're in the process of changing economies, replacing manufacturing with service industries," said Christopher Costello, who monitors Maryland's industries for the state Chamber of Commerce.
The District, historically plagued by higher unemployment because its unskilled workers cannot qualify for jobs requiring a high level of education, has exceeded the national average continuously since 1976. But despite the federal RIFs and the fact that 11.2 percent, or 37,200, of the District's workers are out of a job, local labor officials say the government payroll has still provided a cushion.
Currently within the District, the construction business, finance and real estate, and the printing industry have suffered the most in the recession, each segment losing 600 to 800 jobs in the last year, according to James Cooper, a labor economist with the District government.
Besides its moribund coal industry, Virginia has experienced scattered pockets of unemployment, particularly in steel, automobile-related manufacturing, and the furniture industry, state officials said. "We've had isolated cases of defense-oriented firms, like Newport News Shipbuilding and Dry Dock, actually expanding," said Zack Dameron, president of the Virginia Manufacturers Association, who also noted that the tobacco industry remained stable.
The Virginia suburbs hardest hit are Alexandria, with 8.2 percent unemployment, and Arlington County, with 6.3 percent. Differences in income and age among residents in the two jurisdictions account for the range, according to Robert Dunphey of the Metropolitan Area Council of Governments.
The unhappy distinction of having the highest unemployement rate in the entire area, according to the latest figures, belongs to Russell County, in Southwest Virginia.
"We see a lot more yard sales and a whole lot more of the younger people going into the military," remarked Luther Houchins of Lebanon, personnel supervisor of the Appalachian Power Company, which has "several hundred" applications on file for the handful of new jobs in its 180-person work force.
The shrinking demand for coal by the ailing steel and chemical industries has been made worse in the county by layoffs at the Norfolk and Western railroad yards and two factories producing women's garments, he said.
"Here in Russell County, there's not too much we can do," Houchins said. "We know the people upstate are doing better, but this whole section is dependent on coal. It's just an economic mess."