WASHINGTON – Maryland’s relatively low 4.2 percent unemployment rate has masked pockets of unemployment that linger in some counties, with Baltimore City topping the charts at 6.9 percent in July.
Dorchester County’s unemployment rate went up by 0.9 percent, the worst increase among Maryland counties over the past year, according to statistics from the Maryland Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation.
Cecil County saw its unemployment rate fall by 0.9 percent, the most positive change recorded. Since July 2006, Cecil County’s unemployment rate dropped from 4.9 to 4 percent a year later.
“The economy has been growing; we’re adding a lot of jobs,” said Vernon Thompson, director of economic development in Cecil County.
More high technology businesses, construction projects, warehousing distribution centers and business services are hiring in and around Cecil County, he said.
Another boon to the local economy is the Base Realignment and Closure process, which will bring military operations and contractors to Aberdeen Proving Ground in neighboring Harford County.
The proximity of Aberdeen Proving Ground will help Cecil County residents — 56 percent of whom travel outside of the county for work — find jobs, Thompson said.
“Consolidations at Aberdeen Proving Ground will increase the labor force at Aberdeen by about 12,000 jobs over the next several years,” he said. “It’s a real regional opportunity for us starting in 2009 going through 2015.”
Job opportunities in Cambridge, the Dorchester County seat, plummeted when its largest employer, seafood sales company Icelandic USA Inc., closed its plant there in June. The county’s unemployment rate jumped to 6.6 percent, from 5.7 percent in July 2006.
“The problem within a small county is one big thing can have a tremendous impact,” said Brad Broadwell, director of economic development in Dorchester County.
When Icelandic closed its doors, Broadwell said his colleagues went to work to find jobs for those laid off, offering training programs for laboratory technicians, as well as classes at Chesapeake College.
“We’re trying to put them back into the work force with an added set of skills. It enhances their capabilities and that makes us more attractive,” he said.
Dorchester County’s unemployment rate has declined from a July high of 10.3 percent in 1997, and Broadwell attributed that to the addition of the Hyatt Regency Chesapeake Bay Resort, which employs 700 people.
The rural area still faces hurdles, such as a lack of access to affordable technology, including broadband Internet.
“You can’t talk about creating tech jobs unless you have technology to attract those people,” Broadwell said. “Low-cost broadband is critical. You haven’t got much of a chance without it.”
A similar problem plagued Somerset County, which has an unemployment rate of 5.8 percent.
But funding from the Maryland Department of Business and Economic Development and the Rural Broadband Cooperative will bring broadband to more of the Eastern Shore, said Danny Thompson, executive director for the Somerset County Economic Development Commission.
“Fiber broadband will lower that 5.8 percent even lower,” he said.
High-speed Internet connections are necessary to bring business to Somerset County, especially military contractors in the area for base realignments, Thompson said.
The unemployment rate in Somerset County was 7.5 percent in July 1998. Plans for a Wal-Mart Distribution Center should add about 700 jobs to the region, but the county’s rural nature does hinder the employment rate, he said.
“The Eastern Shore as a whole is very rural. We’re not along the metropolitan corridor that has the big industry jobs,” Thompson said.
Baltimore City has those opportunities, yet it struggles with other obstacles, said Brice Freeman, spokesman for the Mayor’s Office of Employment Development in Baltimore City.
“It’s really because the residents face more challenging barriers than the rest of the state,” he said. “About 80 percent of the welfare population for the Baltimore region resides in Baltimore City and we have the largest proportion of ex-offenders living in Baltimore City. About one quarter of residents has less than a high school diploma.”
The city has created employment and training programs for ex-offenders, as well as a program called Youth Opportunities to help young people graduate from high school, Freeman said.
Although the numbers suggest areas with sagging employment rates, Freeman said Baltimore City had improved considerably over the last 10 years.
“Even though (Baltimore City’s) rate is higher than the state and the nation, it’s gone down significantly since 1997, where Maryland and the country have pretty much remained the same. We’re making some gains and I think a lot of that has to do with programs for disenfranchised populations,” Freeman said.