Behind our sunny jobs rate, storm clouds

The rise in health, retail and hospitality jobs guarantee that average wages will continue to fall on Long Island.

By JOHN L. KOMINICKI // Long Island’s rosy 4.5 percent unemployment rate – the lowest since 2007 – masks a wide range of unsettling workforce trends.

Earnings for private sector workers are declining, total employment participation is down and the pool of best-qualified workers – those aged 35 to 65 – will drop by more than 10 percent over the next five years as the Island continues to gray.

A continuing shift in the local industry mix will also guarantee continuing wage losses, as the Island sheds better-paying finance, manufacturing and government jobs in favor of gains in health services, retail and hospitality. Weekly earnings on Long Island were off 4.8 percent last year, while payrolls grew 2.2 percent nationally.

That troubling news is part of a regional economic outlook presented by M&T Bank economist Gary Keith at the Long Island Business Development Council’s annual conference in Montauk. Keith’s Long Island data is bleaker still when compared to employment trends in New York City, which has outpaced the nation by a wide margin since the end of the Great Recession.

The City has added 567,000 private sector jobs since 2008, an increase of almost 17 percent, compared to 4.3 percent employment growth in the nation as a whole and just 4.2 percent on Long Island.

As a result, New York City has seen a 30 percent surge in real GDP since the end of the recession, while Long Island’s economy has grown 12.3 percent in the same period, well behind the broader New York metro area (17.7 percent) and the nation (15.9 percent).

The total number of Long Islanders in the workforce is also depressed, with 63,000 fewer people working here than in 2007, due to retirements, cuts in public sector positions and so-called discouraged workers who have stopped looking for employment.

Although the number of 20- to 34-year-olds in the market has started to grow again, their numbers have been offset by the tide of Long Islanders reaching retirement age. Since 2008, the 65+ crowd has grown by 62,500, or more than the increase in the Island’s total population during that period, according to Keith.

“Regional growth should accelerate in 2016, driven by a pickup in consumer spending,” Keith said in his report. “However, an aging workforce and shifting industry mix weigh on long-term prospects.”