By Rob Scott
Gloucester County Times
If U.S. Rep. Robert Andrews is to be believed, the damage the recession has wrought in Gloucester County, South Jersey and across the country can be undone, but only if Congress does the right thing, right now.
In a visit to the Gloucester County Times office last week, Andrews said if Congress comes up with a way to reduce the country's deficit -- primarily by scaling back certain entitlement programs and defense spending -- it will inspire confidence in the private sector, which will in turn reinvest in the market and spur economic growth and job creation.
"It's only going to happen if that cash on the balance sheets of big companies moves off the balance sheets," he said. "I know you can't do that with high interest rates. And I know that you get high interest rates if you have fiscal irresponsibility in government."
Andrews said South Jersey is "about halfway back from the bottom," having gained between 17,000-19,000 jobs in Burlington, Camden and Gloucester counties in the last two years, after losing 36,000 jobs between 2007 and 2009.
The troubling aspect of the most recent economic crisis, the thing that separates it from past boom and bust cycles, is many of the jobs that were lost are never coming back, Andrews said, leaving a large population of older workers unemployed and searching for the kinds of jobs that don't exist anymore.
"The person I most worry about is the 57/58-year-old person who worked for 25 or 30 years at the same employer and his job evaporated and there's no prospects," he said. "When the economy bounces back, a lot of the support jobs aren't here anymore. We need to build new industries -- whether it's clean energy, biotech, transportation -- that take the place of these industries that have gone forever."
Freeholder Heather Simmons, liaison to economic development, said Gloucester County is establishing those new industries, the heart of which could be the Port of Paulsboro.
In addition to creating hundreds of temporary construction jobs, the port is also expected to eventually create more than 2,000 direct and indirect full-time, permanent jobs. Some of those will be derived from the construction of windmill turbines for an offshore wind energy project, for example.
Simmons said the county has also experienced significant growth in the health care industry, with new facility construction by Virtua, the University of Pennsylvania and South Jersey Healthcare and expansions at Underwood Memorial Hospital and Kennedy Health System.
Andrews also mentioned a study currently underway at Cooper University Hospital into regenerative medicine: "They're basically figuring out a way you can grow tissue for people's lungs and hearts when they've been damaged."
If that takes off, the congressman said, that's an entire new industry right there. Jobs in biology, accounting, marketing. All based out of South Jersey.
"(The younger generation) is the most likely to surf the wave of new industries that come along. Because you're younger, you're trainable, your education skills are more suited for that industry," he said. "(That) generation has the surfboard, but there's no waves. But when that waves comes, you're ready to ride it."
What about those older workers with a quarter century of experience in an industry that's moved on and who don't have the education to dive into a new one?
"Their skills don't match that reality. You help people get reskilled ... but it's a much less reachable prospect," said Andrews. "For the guy who worked at (Sunoco's) Eagle Point (refinery), who's 57, that doesn't work for him. First of all, he needs help right now, because he's still got mortgage payments to make and daughters to marry and kids to educate and bills to pay. We don't have a very good answer for him, but that's what we've got to work on."
Simmons agreed with the congressman, saying the county doesn't have a "magic pill" for older workers, which makes the career resource services the county offers all the more vital.
"We recognize that's a very difficult audience," she said. "Is this a time to find a similar position, or is this the time to explore a new career?"
She said Gloucester County College offers training and retraining in a number of fields and the county's one-stop career center in Thorofare has many resources for unemployed or underemployed workers.
Andrews believes brightening the country's economic outlook is ultimately going to come down to what Congress does in the next month and a half, before the country exhausts its borrowing authority under the existing debt limit on Aug. 2. If Republicans and Democrats can reach a compromise on increasing revenue via taxes vs. cutting spending, it will go a long way toward pulling the country completely out of the lingering recession.
"Here's the one touchstone of optimism I have: We've been here before ... In the early "90s. Unemployment was high, debt was high, and it turned around," Andrews said. "And the formula for turning it around was reigning in spending on entitlements and other programs, a modest increase in revenue in the people most able to pay for it and some discipline. And what happened from 1993 to 2000 was the best economy in the modern history of the country. And I think we can do it again."