Published June 18. 2012 4:00AM
Southeastern Connecticut residents have received some mixed messages about the economy and job outlook over the last couple of weeks. And while the overall takeaway is not good, there are indications of what a turnaround might look like. It would include worker retraining, innovative steps to spur small business growth, particularly in science and technology, and greater attention by state economic development officials.
Local businesses and individuals who were questioning reports that the nation emerged from the recession two years ago had good reason for their skepticism. A recent report by The Hartford Business Journal calculates the Norwich-New London market area did not emerge from the Great Recession until last December. The southeastern Connecticut region lost 12,300 jobs during a recession that dragged on for 43 months, roughly double the statewide recession.
And there has not been much recovery. Norwich-New London is 11,800 jobs below the employment level seen four years ago. The unemployment rate is 8.2 percent.
Inflicting much of the damage have been cutbacks at the region's big job engines and their ripple effect throughout the economy. Job reductions over the past year at Pfizer Inc.'s Groton research campus are approaching 1,000, as the pharmaceutical company nears its target of cutting its local workforce to 3,500.
The region's two tribal casinos show no signs of recovering from the job losses inflicted by the recession and corresponding downturn in gambling dollars spent by patrons. On Friday Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun reported that their slot-machine revenues, the primary business gauge for casinos, were down significantly in May, falling by 9.8 and 9.1 percent, respectively, compared to the same month in 2011. Earlier in the week Foxwoods Resort Casino had notified the union representing its engineering department that it intends to lay off 77 people, among some of the better paying casino jobs.
The good news, such as it was, came in the form of a state Labor Department report that the region added 1,300 jobs in May. Yet the bump could well be temporary, reflecting hiring tied to the region's seasonal tourism industry.
Also among the recent spate of reports was a review of the $1.18 million in retraining funds eastern Connecticut received under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the federal stimulus program. The study by the Eastern Connecticut Workforce Investment Board found that more than 350 dislocated workers secured jobs through the retraining and 9 in 10 remain employed. The collective result was $23 million in economic activity, both through direct wages and the resultant stimulus of those dollars.
Such studies, reaffirmed across the country, suggest that the stimulus program was a success, it just wasn't big enough or well enough targeted toward job training and infrastructure improvement. Republicans are making a mistake in blocking the president's call for more stimulus spending and, more indefensibly, in blocking a transportation bill.
Closer to home, we applaud Gov. Dannel P. Malloy's willingness to pursue public/private partnerships to promote job growth. State officials recently broke ground for Bioscience Connecticut, the renovation and expansion of the University of Connecticut Health Center in Farmington. The project, a $290 million state investment, also includes plans by The Jackson Laboratory of Maine to build a new laboratory for genomic medicine on the health center campus.
And this week Gov. Malloy announced that five more Connecticut small businesses have qualified for assistance through the state's Small Business Express Program, though none of them in eastern Connecticut. In a special session focused on jobs last fall, the legislature set aside $100 million in grants and low-interest loans to assist emerging small businesses.
We urge the administration to continue looking for smart partnership opportunities in eastern Connecticut. With the displacement caused by the Pfizer cutbacks, the state risks losing a talented, highly trained workforce. A proposal, backed by the Chamber of Commerce of Eastern Connecticut, would use vacant laboratory space at Pfizer for both established and startup scientific businesses. That is the kind of innovative approach that can benefit from state cooperation.
The hole is deep, climbing out will take time and persistence, but if the region refuses to surrender to pessimism, good times can return.