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Maryland unemployment rate down to 6.5% in January

ANNAPOLIS — Maryland construction contractors took advantage of a mild winter and added 3,000 jobs during typically slow January, helping to force the state’s unemployment rate to its lowest level in three years.

The statewide unemployment rate is 6.5 percent, down from December’s rate of 6.6 percent, according to numbers released Tuesday by the Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation. The private sector accounted for 4,900 of the state’s 5,000 new jobs.

The drop reflects the national trend of declining unemployment, as nationwide unemployment stands at 8.3 percent after the economy added 227,000 jobs in February.

Statewide unemployment has dropped nearly a full percentage point in the last year, when it was 7.3 percent in January 2011. Since then, Maryland’s economy has added nearly 40,000 jobs. Maryland’s unemployment rate is better than all but 12 states, said DLLR Secretary Alexander M. Sanchez.

Sanchez said he was hesitant to proclaim the state in full and healthy economic recovery after five straight months of job gains, but admitted the news was encouraging.

“I think the good news speaks for itself,” Sanchez said. “This is a recovery that is really hitting us all across the board.”

The trade, transportation, warehousing and utilities industry added 1,700 jobs in January, and 1,200 positions were added in the leisure and hospitality industry.

“This steady progress in job creation is a positive sign that Maryland continues to move forward,” Gov. Martin O’Malley said in a statement. “Maryland has now recovered 69 percent of the jobs lost. … The most important job we create is the next one. There is more work to be done. That’s why our focus continues to be creating and saving jobs for Marylanders.”

O’Malley noted that 39 percent of jobs lost during the recession had been regained nationwide, and that Maryland’s unemployment rate is nearly two percentage points better than the national rate.

“Progress is a choice, strengthening and growing our middle class is a choice,” O’Malley said. “We must make the modern investments a modern economy requires to create jobs — investments in education, investments in innovation and investments in infrastructure.”

Anirban Basu, chairman and CEO of Sage Policy Group Inc., a Baltimore-based economic and policy consulting firm, said that while the state is on the path to recovery, “we can never feel comfortable.”

“Right now, the United States and Maryland economies are in motion,” Basu said. “I would expect the recovery to only get stronger” but people have to understand “just how fragile the recovery is.”

The economy was experiencing a similar period of growth about this time last year, Basu said, and then the earthquake in Japan, increasing gas prices and concerns over the nation’s debt ceiling decimated consumer confidence.

“The national economy is in recovery and Maryland is along with it. You have faith for now in Maryland,” he said. “But I think we’re going to have some tough months in the months ahead for reasons we don’t quite know.”

For now, the confidence of employers and job seeks is on the rise, said Joe Gonzales, regional manager for staffing firm Robert Half International in Baltimore.

“We’re seeing folks entertaining multiple offers,” Gonzales said. A lot of companies are getting to a point where they’re gaining even more confidence in adding to their teams. It’s been a very competitive market. … People are a lot more optimistic about business goals.”

The only time the unemployment rate in Maryland has been lower in the last three years was January 2009, when it was 6.3 percent.