Part of our October series on Jobs & The Economy, featuring written op-ed pieces and Q&As with Delaware’s business, labor and government leaders.
December 1999. Remember it? Y2K paranoia, Prince’s song “1999” getting constant airplay, and the Furby was the “must have” Christmas toy. Do you also remember Delaware’s unemployment rate at the time? It was just 3.1 percent. Good times.
Unfortunately, unemployment in the state has not been this low since, though as recently as February 2008, it was still just below 4 percent, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. That kind of job market feels like a distant memory today. From the beginning of the recession in December 2007 to April 2011, employers in the state laid off 30,000 workers, 6.7 percent of Delaware’s workforce.
With more than 34,000 Delawareans currently unemployed, the need for good paying jobs remains critical. Earlier this month, Governor Jack Markell spoke to the 2011 Leadership Delaware fellows about a number of issues, and at the forefront of the discussion was job creation. Governor Markell and his team deserve credit for their aggressiveness in attracting companies such as PBF Energy, which officially reopened the Delaware City Refinery this month, putting 750 people back to work. Capital One has also committed to hiring 500 employees in Delaware over the next two years. Additionally, the governor announced last week the opening of four job centers located in Dover, Georgetown, Seaford, and Wilmington libraries to help the unemployed get back into the workforce.
But in the meantime, the bleeding continues, as AstraZeneca has announced its plans to cut 400 jobs from its Delaware workforce by early next year.
The factors preventing our state from getting more people back to work though extend beyond our state lines. A June 2011 survey commissioned by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce found that “more than half of the small businesses surveyed, 55 percent, said overall uncertainty of the economy is the biggest or second biggest obstacle to hiring new employees,” and 33 percent cited the requirements of the health care reform bill as an obstacle to hiring, as well.
Delaware officials can only provide certainty to a limited extent, as businesses want to know which policies and regulations will be created and enforced by all levels of government and how their operations will be affected. Without clarity on issues such as healthcare, post reform, we’ll continue to find ourselves grappling with high unemployment.
Overall, we seem to be caught in a self-perpetuating cycle. Consumers’ confidence and their willingness to spend are key components in getting the economy moving. But as long as companies of all sizes are disinclined from adding jobs due to economic fears, monthly new-job numbers will continue to be uninspiring and will fail to promote confidence that the economy is improving and that it is safe to go out there and spend.
Locally, every effort the state can make counts. Fortunately, Delaware’s unemployment rate has remained just below the national average of 9 percent, and the optimistic view is that our economic recovery will be built upon the kind of incremental improvements that Delaware has seen lately. Eventually, they’ll add up. But as long as the powers that be in Washington remain unwilling to put politics aside and work toward solutions, making substantial progress on lowering the number of unemployed Delawareans, and all Americans for that matter, will be a difficult task.