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Jobless rate at record low

January 07, 2000|By KERRY LYNN FRALEY

Washington County hit a record low jobless rate of 2.6 percent in November 1999, according to Maryland Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation figures released Friday.

The low rate - a decline of two-tenths of a percentage point from October 1999 - mainly reflects strong seasonal retail hiring and few layoffs in the construction industry thanks to mild weather, said Bruce Massey, unemployment insurance supervisor at the labor department's Hagerstown office.

The county's jobless rate was 3.4 percent in November 1998, according to labor department figures.

Washington County's tight labor market was evident in the difficulty stores had staffing for this holiday season, said local mall marketing directors.

"It's a good thing, but it's a bad thing at the same time," said Alice Rosen, marketing director for Prime Outlets at Hagerstown.

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Finding good employees has been a problem for some time and continued to be for the holiday season, despite the fact many stores have raised salaries to better compete for workers, Rosen said.

Rosen said she heard from a number of stores that they're recruiting further away than ever before.

"They have to," she said.

A job fair in August helped recruit many of the large number of permanent employees needed for new stores in the Valley Mall's expansion and for temporary holiday help, said Julie Simmons, mall marketing director.

But it couldn't work miracles.

"Everyone still felt shorthanded. They worked on bare minimum from what I understand," said Simmons, who heard store managers wishing for just one or two more workers.

The mall itself was a little short on holiday help, with only eight workers for the customer service booth compared to 10 to 12 in a normal year, she said.

While it admittedly has made hiring and retention tougher, the declining jobless rate in 1999 didn't keep local companies from growing and new companies from moving to the area, said Thomas B. Riford, marketing director for the Hagerstown-Washington County Economic Development Commission.

Recently updating its annual directory of business and industry in the county, the EDC found nearly every company listed reported more workers than it had in the previous year, Riford said.

There also were about 50 projects in 1999 that added a significant number of new jobs, he said.

Several more in progress - like Centre at Hagerstown - will add even more, Riford said.

In the process of hiring a general manager for its new Centre at Hagerstown store, Borders won't start recruiting hourly workers for the store until it gets closer to opening, said regional director Ray Dinterman.

While hiring in the Washington area has been a challenge for more than a year, the company is confident about finding the 35 to 40 employees it plans to open the Hagerstown store with in mid-April, Dinterman said.

Rising to the challenge, the company hired a regional recruiter, who goes to colleges and civic organizations and talks about opportunities with Borders, he said.

"It's definitely a time when you have to be more assertive to get the good employees," Dinterman said.

Because of what it sells - books and music - Borders has a leg up in attracting high-quality applicants, he said.

Jobless rates in Frederick County and statewide also dropped two-tenths of a percentage point from October 1999 to November 1999, according to labor department figures.

Frederick County's rate was 1.8 percent in November. Maryland's rate was 3.1 percent.

Nationally, unemployment held steady at 3.8 percent, three-tenths of a percentage point below November 1998.

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