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Study - Local job market 'pretty stable'

October 21, 2007|By ARNOLD S. PLATOU

Steady as she goes.

Despite the economic winds that began buffeting much of the nation last year, the metropolitan area between and around Hagerstown and Martinsburg, W.Va., looks to be "pretty stable," jobwise, a national think tank has concluded.

In 2006, the number of jobs created was about average here, as across America, said Armen Bedroussian, a research economist with the Milken Institute, which did the study.

Bedroussian said high-tech industries were leading the way here, at least from January through December, the latest period Milken has studied.

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Indeed, during the year, the area was the nation's 10th highest in the growth of value of all goods and services produced in the high-tech sector, Bedroussian said. It "grew 35 percent above the national average," he said.

Fueling this most were area data processing companies, Bedroussian said.

"Under data processing, the industry has added almost 300 jobs over the last five years in your area," he said. "That is an average of 12 percent a year growth."

Data processing would include such companies as Citicorp Credit Services and First Data Merchant Services, which have large operations near Hagerstown. In general, "high-tech" includes jobs in aerospace, computer systems, environment, telecommunications, life sciences and manufacturing of technology.

Bedroussian said another sign of strength in the area is the 17.5 percent increase in the average pay for all sorts of jobs in all local businesses in the past five years.

He said figures from the national Bureau of Labor Statistics show the average wages here rose from $30,300 in 2001 to $35,600 in 2006.

In terms of job growth overall, the local metro region "was rather stable" compared to the national average over the past five years, Bedroussian said.

Besides high-tech, he said, two star players in this were:

·Businesses in warehousing storage, where employment grew an average of 22 percent a year from 2001 to 2006.

· Companies in amusement and recreation, and gambling, which posted an average of 12 percent gain in jobs each of those years. In all, about 420 new jobs were added in this sector.

But the high-tech area of the economy is a key focus for Milken, a publicly-funded nonprofit research organization based in Santa Monica, Calif., said Jennifer Manfr, associate director of communications at Milken.

Milken's research shows that a region's "commitment to high techs is an indicator of future potential growth because the knowledge economy is ... really where the growth of metro areas is going to be sustained," Manfr said.

So, on the down side, Milken's finding that the Hagerstown-Martinsburg corridor is weak in its concentration of high-tech companies is worth noting among the other signs of stability and growth in this sector.

Its showing here "is 50 percent below that of the national average," Bedroussian said. "It's not good. It's not necessarily ugly. ... It's not a very high-tech concentrated metro."

On the other hand, he said, Milken also looks at how diverse that high-tech base is.

Here, the local metro comes in "just above" the national average. There are four high-tech industries whose output is a greater percentage than that of the national average for those industries, he said. The study report did not identify those companies.

"So, some of the growth could be driven by those particular companies, at least in the high-tech service factor," he said.

Milken's assessment of this region, especially as far as the role of high-tech companies in the area's job growth, rings true with economic development officials here.

Bob Crawford, executive director of the Berkeley County Development Authority based in Martinsburg, said the wave of such growth has been even stronger in neighboring areas of Jefferson County, northern Virginia and Frederick, Md.

"We have not gotten the interest yet, and note my emphasis is on 'yet,'" he said.

Of particular interest to economic development officials in Washington County are that the study ranks this region on a par with the fast-growing Interstate 270 corridor area it competes with for ecomomic prospects.

The Bethesda-Gaithersburg-Frederick, Md., corridor along I-270 is ranked 83rd, compared to Hagerstown-Martinsburg's 71st rank overall.

"I guess it says our economy and job growth and type of jobs are improving, as well as the typical areas that are often benchmarked in the state," said Robin Ferree, deputy director of the Hagerstown-Washington Community Economic Development Commission.

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