57,700 local jobs lost to recession

Cincinnati Enquirer - January 24, 2012

But health care alone can’t make up for losses almost everywhere else

by Lisa Bernard-Kuhn

Mercy Health expects to hire 300 new doctors, nurses and staff this year on top of 400 added since 2009.

The Christ Hospital is adding 150 workers, and St. Elizabeth Healthcare has hired 20 new employees to work a just-opened spine center.

New numbers Tuesday show that more than 8,000 health-care-related jobs have been created in the region since the recession began in December 2007 – a rare bright spot in an otherwise dismal jobs report.

Unemployment in the 15-county region dropped last December to 7.7 percent, the lowest in three years. But 57,700 jobs have been lost since the recession took hold, and the only major sector to gain jobs has been in health care and related services.

“It certainly doesn’t indicate that we’re in for a strong recovery any time soon,” said Jennifer Pitzer, a research associate at the University of Cincinnati’s Center for Economics. “We appear to have reached something of a plateau at this point, but certainly stability is preferred to declines.”

Five years after the recession first began, the numbers out Tuesday underscore the downturn’s toll: 37,500 jobs lost in service-providing industries like transportation and utilities; 10,700 lost in retail; and 7,500 lost in manufacturing. In the near term at least, the data suggests a continued, sluggish, uneven recovery.

Even the 7.7 percent unemployment rate – the lowest since December 2009 – is suspect. It’s being driven by a drop in the size of the region’s labor force, which includes the number of people working and looking for work. So many jobless people have given up the hunt for employment that they’re no longer being counted, pulling the jobless rate down.

“It doesn’t bode well for our economy or recovery at all,” said Hannah Halbert of Policy Matters Ohio, a non-profit research organization based in Columbus.

Bucking the trend, however, are health-care and related services, which employ 153,200 people across the region. More than 8,000 new jobs have been created in the past five years in the sector that includes jobs in hospitals, health services and social assistance care.

In Southwest Ohio and Northern Kentucky, the stats are backed by an expanding network of regional hospitals that have added new facilities in addition to new staff in recent years.

In Northern Kentucky, St. Elizabeth Healthcare recently celebrated the opening of a 10,000-square-foot spine center in Florence, where it expects to serve an additional 7,000 patients a year.

At Mercy Health, which has 8,500 employees across at facilities across the region, up to 300 new jobs are expected to be added this year, spokeswoman Nanette Bentley said. The network has been adding jobs since 2009, primarily physicians and specialists to work new cardiology and other expanded service lines.

Likewise, Mt. Auburn-based Christ Hospital expects to add another 150 new jobs, mostly nurses and physicians. The additions will help meet the needs of the aging boomer population and thousands of new patients anticipated because of health-care reforms, said Rick Tolson, Christ’s vice president and chief administrative officer.

“When we look at this as the backdrop, the key for us is making sure we fill our talent pipeline,” Tolson said.

But growth in health care alone will not make up for the losses almost everywhere else, Pitzer said.

December’s jobless rate of 7.7 percent, which is not adjusted for seasonal factors, is on par with Ohio’s unemployment rate of 7.6 percent. Both were improvements over November – 7.8 locally, 7.6 percent in Ohio – but the rates do not reflect a surge in job growth.

To the contrary, the number of jobs fell in December from the previous month by almost 5,000 to 1.01 million.

“It’s difficult not to be happy about a declining unemployment rate, but the fact is, it’s not dropping because of some steady increase in employment,” said Hannah Halbert of Policy Matters Ohio, a non-profit research organization based in Columbus.

The declining jobless rate is mostly being fueled by a shrinking labor force. Employed workers and people looking for jobs fell to 1.1 million – down 12,400 from a year ago – marking the lowest level since the recovery began in June 2009.

“People fall out of the labor force for a lot of reasons,” Halbert said. “Some people may be returning to school. Some may be choosing to take early retirement, and some may just be discouraged and have stopped looking.”

The challenge ahead will be matching the unemployed with a job in the few growing industries, Pitzer said.

“I don’t see anything that would indicate something looming or something booming on the horizon,” she said. “I think it’s going to be more of the same for the rest of this year.”

On the bright side, the number of jobs in the region has remained above 1 million for 10 straight months.

Also, the number of unemployed in the region – which stood at 84,400 in December – was the lowest in four years.

“The good news is that those who are employed are remaining so, and that kind of stability should be seen as a positive indication for the economy,” Pitzer said.

57,000 local jobs lost to recession

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