Defense-Based Workers Comfortable, The Other Half Struggles in St. Mary's - Southern Maryland Headline News

Defense-Based Workers Comfortable, The Other Half Struggles in St. Mary's

By Guy Leonard, The County Times (

HOLLYWOOD, Md.—St. Mary’s County has nearly the highest weekly average wage in the entire state — second only to Montgomery County – and it is the fastest growing, but the problem is that almost half the county workforce makes twice as much as the other half.

That means that while wages and the standard of living for some will almost certainly continue to rise, the increased cost of living will be harder for rest of the county to bear, officials worry.

County Economic Development Director Bob Schaller and one of his deputies, Laura Boonchaisri, presented the raw data about the county wage split, garnered from recent census data, to the county planning commission earlier this month. While Schaller believes that it’s a good thing for the county to have such a reliable economic engine – the average federal employee or who has connections to the federal government here makes an average weekly salary of $1,661 – the other half of the two tier economy is more likely to find it harder and harder to afford living in St. Mary’s County.

The other half makes an average weekly salary of just $715 a week

“It raises a lot of concerns,” Schaller said. “What is our plan B? Do we have other plans for wealth creation?”

Schaller is also worried that people who have lived here, grew up here and have family roots that do not find a way to partake of the higher wage opportunities could find it too expensive to live here eventually.

“If nothing’s done, of course [that could happen].” Schaller said.

One of the key aspects to ensuring that people who live here can become more competitive in seeking jobs on the base with those moving to the area is higher education.

While local programs in the schools and public colleges have focused more on training in science, mathematics, technology and project management, there is much more room for improvement, he said.

Only about 28 or 29 percent of the county’s population has bachelor’s degrees, Schaller said, which lags behind the state average of about 33 percent. A college degree is one of the key components to even begin to become competitive in seeking a job on the base for a civilian.

“We still lag behind the state in bachelor’s degree attainment,” Schaller said.

“We need more four-year degree programs connected to work on the base. “Education is vital, it’s essential to that,” he said.

Robin Finnacom, head of the county’s Community Development Corporation, said the wage gap makes the county’s dearth of affordable workforce housing a top issue.

Without enough affordable housing, key service providers like teachers, police and fire/EMS workers will find it harder to both work and live here, making it more attractive to seek employment in another county.

“We’ve got to have that spectrum of jobs,” Finnacom said. “We still have a need and we’re going to have a greater need.”

The federal spending that has for almost 70 years provided economic prosperity to St. Mary’s might also be in danger, according to a statewide report from independent think tank Blue Print Maryland.

The report states that if the federal government reduces spending by 22 percent, as is the recommendation of President Obama’s own debt and spending affordability committee, Maryland stands to lose as many as 150,000 jobs in the near future.

“These jobs are associated with nearly $11 billion in annual labor income and nearly $21 billion in local business sales,” the report states.

Such a loss of jobs would increase Maryland’s unemployment rate to just under 12 percent, according to the report.

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