If anyone had forgotten the underlying issue behind the never-ending statewide debate on highway tolls, a reminder was issued last week from the Department of Labor, and it told a familiar story. Despite some minor movement on a few indicators, the state’s job situation remains stuck in a years-long slump with no indication that better days are on the horizon.
If anything, there are worries that this could be some kind of high-water mark before the next inevitable economic slump arrives, which ought to be a sobering thought.
It’s not that the report on November’s employment situation contained bad news. In fact, the state gained 900 jobs that month, and the preceding month’s job losses were readjusted to show a figure not quite so concerning. The unemployment rate ticked up, to 3.7 percent, but that in itself should not be considered alarming.
The problem, as usual, is the totality of the situation, where Connecticut finds itself unable to generate anything in the way of sustained growth. “Our three-month moving average job growth figure … has remained positive since July,” said Andy Condon, director of the Office of Research at the Connecticut Department of Labor. But he added, in an understatement that has become all too familiar to observers of the labor market, “Our annual growth rate in jobs remains very modest.”
This explains much of the urgency behind a transportation overhaul. The point is not just to make commuting easier, it’s to make the state more hospitable to companies looking to grow and expand, or even relocate here. The state’s highway network and disjointed transit system is consistently cited as a roadblock to economic growth, putting special urgency on plans to recreate those systems.
What no one can agree upon is how to pay for it.
The need for a legitimate jobs boost could not be more urgent. Connecticut has yet to fully recover from the Great Recession, and has now recovered 85.5 percent of the jobs lost between 2008 and 2010. This comes even as the job recovery is into its 117th month, and by many historical indications the state is already overdue for the next economic downturn. As bad as the last one was, the recession to come could be worse if only because of the difficult starting position the state will find itself in.
It will take more than a transportation plan to spur state job growth, though that will be necessary. Connecticut is a suburban-dominated state, which served our needs well for many post-war decades when companies were fleeing big cities for far-flung office parks. Since those trends started reversing, joined by the departure of large-scale manufacturing and the ongoing volatility of the finance sector on which so much of our economy depends, Connecticut has been in flux.
There are many positives to the state economy, including a highly educated workforce, but the big questions remain unanswered. What is going to drive our economy and put large numbers of people to work in well-paying jobs? Until we find an answer to those questions, everything else about our local economy is secondary.