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Washington is nation's strongest job market

Where is hiring strongest? Washington has shown the strongest overall employment outlook, followed by San Antonio and Greenville, S.C. The worst? Las Vegas, Reno, Nev., and Detroit.
Image: Cherry Blossoms Bloom In Washington DC
Washington is the only metropolitan area in which the number of advertised job vacancies in May was greater than the number of unemployed.Mark Wilson / Getty Images
/ Source: Business Week

It took more than a year, but Bernice Spicer finally found a job. Spicer, 52, has been working since April as a sales associate at the new Bel Air, Md., store of hhgregg, an Indianapolis-based appliance and electronics retailer that has been expanding in the Mid-Atlantic region.

Until she was laid off in March 2009, Spicer had for nine years been marketing director for Bel Air's Harford Mall. Suddenly without work, she fell behind on bills, was forced to sell her house, and moved in with her mother.

"It wasn't total destitution but it rearranged my lifestyle completely," she says. While some may see her new position as a step down from her former management role, Spicer says: "I was very thankful to be extended the opportunity." She hopes to be promoted within the company.

Spicer was able to seize the opportunity just as fresh jobs arrived in her area — a rare victory for the unemployed these days. Nearly two years after the U.S. economy tumbled, millions continue to feel the financial and emotional stings of unemployment — among them debt, late payments, and anxiety. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that in June some 125,000 jobs were lost. Given so much gloom, what's surprising is that more employers are saying they plan to start hiring again.

Milwaukee-based employment services company Manpower, in its most recent employment-outlook report, says 18 percent of 18,000 employers surveyed nationwide expect to increase full-time, part-time, contract, and temporary hiring in the third quarter, while 8 percent expect a decline in their payrolls. The outlook, although weak compared to that of several years ago, marks an improvement from recent forecasts: From January to March only 12 percent of businesses planned to increase hiring and an equal proportion expected to decrease staff levels.

An additional indicator trending upwards: The volume of online jobs ads has grown consistently from February to June, according to a monthly survey by online jobs site company Monster Worldwide. New York-based nonprofit the Conference Board further reports that there were 4.15 million unduplicated online ads for U.S. jobs in June, up 26.1 percent year-on-year.

Jobs surge in U.S. capital
"We're a lot better off than one year ago" in terms of job availability, says Jeff Quinn, a senior director of research at Monster Worldwide. "Year-on-year there are strong, positive signs. However, we still have not regained all of the ground lost during the recession. It will take some time."

Where is hiring strongest? ranked the 100 largest metropolitan statistical areas, based on Manpower's data about businesses' Q1, Q2, and Q3 hiring forecasts. So far this year, Washington has shown the strongest overall employment outlook, followed by San Antonio and Greenville, S.C. Employers display the worst employment outlook in Las Vegas, Reno, Nev., and Detroit.

In Manpower's survey, 23 percent of Washington area employers plan to increase staff levels in the third quarter, while 4 percent plan to decrease employment and 69 percent envision no change.

Washington is the only metropolitan area in which the number of advertised job vacancies in May (201,000) was greater than the number of unemployed (184,600), according to the Conference Board.

By contrast, the New York area had 298,700 online job ads in May — highest among the nation's metro areas — yet the supply of jobs does not meet demand. The region counted 828,400 unemployed people, an 8.7 percent jobless rate, according the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Help wanted at Accenture and Deloitte
In addition to hhgregg, which plans to hire 2,500 people nationwide in 2010 — including 500 to staff 10 new stores in Washington — an additional employer that is significantly increasing head count is Accenture. The management consulting firm announced plans to hire 50,000 people around the world during fiscal 2010 (which ends on Aug. 31), including 7,000 in the U.S. In the greater Washington area alone, Accenture will hire more than 1,000 people, according to a spokesperson.

Deloitte's federal government practice also hired 1,200 new employees in the Washington metro area so far this year and plans to hire about 160 per month through the end of May 2011.

Despite improvements, the U.S. labor market remains anemic. Economists estimate that the private sector must create more than 150,000 jobs per month over several months to have a significant impact on the unemployment rate.

"There are 11 million more people in the labor market than 10 years ago, but the same number of jobs," says Carl Van Horn, a professor of public policy at Rutgers University. In recent months, he says: "We've had a little progress, but not enough."

Job hunting has become highly competitive. In June, there were 14.6 million unemployed people in the U.S. — nearly twice as many as in late 2007. The Conference Board says there are nearly four unemployed workers for every online advertised vacancy in the U.S. Also, many new jobs posted last month were in accommodation and food services, reports Monster. These tend to be seasonal, rather than permanent positions.

Wanted: Greater qualifications
Van Horn notes that the number of online job ads can be misleading; employers might post ads, even when there are no openings, to see if there are qualified workers willing to do current employees' jobs for less pay. A company may also be required to post a vacancy even if it already has a preferred candidate.

Another hurdle for job seekers: Employers are pickier now. June Shelp, vice-president of the Conference Board, says ads tend to feature stricter qualifications, eliminating many potential applicants. With millions of people unemployed and college graduates entering the workforce, "[companies] have a better chance of asking for exactly what you want."

For many, securing a new job has thus been impossible. In a survey of 908 unemployed people published by Rutgers in May, two-thirds of those who were jobless in August 2009 had still not found work by March; 16 percent had been unemployed for more than two years. Most of those who did find work took pay cuts and diminished benefits. "While the worst phase of the Great Recession is behind us, the vast majority of jobless Americans have not found new jobs," states the Rutgers report.

The labor market has stagnated, says Van Horn. While there are glimmers of improvement quarter by quarter, businesses must continually add hundreds of thousands of new jobs before we can say employment is truly growing again, he says. "We fell a long way and climbing back up takes a long time."