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Jobless rate tumbles

February 06, 1999|By KERRY LYNN FRALEY

Washington County's jobless rate fell to its lowest level in at least a decade in December 1998, according to Shanon S. Wolf, manager of the Maryland Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation's Hagerstown office.

At 3.1 percent, it was down .4 percentage points from the previous month and 1.3 percentage points from the December 1997 rate, according to preliminary figures released Friday by the agency.

Washington County's record-low jobless rate, coupled with an increase in the county's available work force, reflects good job growth with no significant layoffs to offset it, Wolf said.

Continued seasonal hiring and mild weather, which kept employment up in the construction industry, also were factors, she said.

The county's civilian labor force rose from 72,058 workers to 72,153 workers and employment grew from 69,549 workers to 69,928 workers from November to December, according to labor department figures.

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"From our perspective, it was a good month. A lot of people were going to work," Wolf said.

The low rate doesn't mean there aren't available workers out there, she said.

Employers who have asked for her office's help in large recruitment efforts have been satisfied with the number and quality of applicants, Wolf said.

But the tight labor market has made it more difficult for companies hiring certain occupations, those looking for entry-level and part-time workers, and those that don't offer benefits, she said.

"It's affecting every employer in the area, whether it's large or small," said Sandy Brisentine, human resources manager for Staples Distribution Center in Halfway.

The wide-open job market has resulted in a smaller pool of job applicants and more turnover at the distribution center, which employs about 850 workers, Brisentine said.

Compare the nearly 8,000 applications in four months that Staples received after it opened in 1997 to the 50 to 100 applications it gets monthly now, she said.

While it isn't hiring large groups of people right now, the distribution center is in a constant hiring mode, Brisentine said.

"We try to keep ahead of the game," she said.

Wanda Barton, manager of Country Treasures in Valley Mall, said she has been trying to hire a sales clerk for about two weeks but has received few applications for the minimum-wage job.

"We usually have tons of them," Barton said.

People who have applied have said they can only work limited hours, which isn't what she needs, she said.

Donna Kaye, of Donna Kaye/Interim Personnel in Hagerstown, said the employment agency is finding people to fill job openings.

But recruiting definitely is getting more difficult, Kaye said.

Some companies are paying more to attract qualified workers, she said.

Kaye said her agency also is creating qualified workers for needed areas with a lot of in-house training.

Economic development officials say they're not worried high employment rates will stifle business growth.

While there's no question it's more difficult, good companies in Washington County can always find workers, said Robin Douglas, manager of the Western Maryland Regional Office of the Maryland Department of Business and Economic Development.

"The unemployment rate doesn't tell everything," Douglas said.

It doesn't include discouraged workers who dropped out of the job market and might come back in, workers from adjacent counties who would commute in and those who would move from another area to fill a good job, he said.

"For companies that are willing to pay competitive salaries and treat their people right, it's wide open," Douglas said.

That's not just theory, said Thomas B. Riford, marketing specialist for the Hagerstown-Washington County Economic Development Commission.

TruServ already has hired 200 people for its Hopewell Road warehouse and has upped planned employment there from 300 workers to 400 workers, Riford said.

Months ago, Citicorp Credit Services anticipated it would become more and more of a challenge finding qualified workers for its new consumer lending operation and growing customer service department, spokesman Phil Kelly said.

Kelly said he can't explain why, but the company hasn't had a problem.

"I would like to think people think we're a good place to work," he said.

At 3.5 percent, the state rate was at an all-time low for the month of December and at its lowest level in nearly a decade, according to state labor department figures.

Frederick County's rate dropped half a percentage point from November to 2 percent - a full percentage point below its December 1997 level, according to the figures.

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