N.J. business group cautious on 2011 economy

The year ahead could be grim for unemployed workers in New Jersey, according to a report released Tuesday by the New Jersey Business and Industry Association. Any glimmer of hope in hiring may be matched by layoffs.

The annual survey asked 1,311 New Jersey businesses - 80 percent with fewer than 50 employees - about their economic outlooks.

"If you have a job now, you're much more likely to keep it than you were a year ago," president Philip Kirschner said. "If you're out of work, it's still going to be very, very difficult to find one."

New Jersey's unemployment rate was at 9.2 percent in October. Above Pennsylvania's rate of 8.8 percent, New Jersey's is the highest in the Mid-Atlantic, though lower than the national rate of 9.6 percent.

The survey results were released as Congress debates whether to extend unemployment insurance benefits for about two million Americans who will lose them before the end of the year.

Sixteen percent of businesses surveyed in the fall anticipate hiring in 2011, and 15 percent expect cuts. That's a 1 percent improvement on each measure over last year.

Kirschner said that efforts by the Christie administration to roll back regulatory obstacles for business and curb property-tax increases could spur growth. But it may be a while before that translates into hiring.

"Most of these [efforts] are going to take some time to work their way through," Kirschner said. "That's not the answer that, certainly, people out of work want to hear."

Democratic leaders last week announced a package of bills aimed at stimulating job growth, including a job-training program for the unemployed and tax breaks for companies that locate in New Jersey.

Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D., Gloucester) said the job training, modeled after a Georgia program, would cost little but have a significant impact.

"I'm not naive," he said. "It will take a little bit of time, but I think you will see some improvement as the year moves forward" if the bills pass.

But Philip Harvey, a professor of law and economics at Rutgers School of Law-Camden, was skeptical. While there could be a slight reduction in national unemployment, he said, he doesn't expect it to drop even by 1 percentage point in 2011.

Job-training programs work only if there are jobs available for the trainees to move into, Harvey said. And tax breaks have a "very small" stimulus effect, he said. Plus, as the federal stimulus money for major road projects runs out, more people will be out of work.

"Businesses should be supporting policies that create consumption and demand for business services," Harvey said.

The most efficient way to do that, he said, is for government to employ more people. That creates work automatically and puts money into the economy to stimulate private job growth.

A quarter of the companies surveyed said profits were up in 2010. And fewer companies - 58 percent compared with 71 percent in 2009 - reported a reduction in profits.

Business leaders reporting that their industry was emerging from the slump jumped from 15 percent in 2009 to 31 percent this year. Kirschner called that an "early sign" of recovery.

He noted one black mark on the local economy: real estate.

"There's no indication that there's really any bounce at all in real estate," Kirschner said. "I wish I could say something encouraging about that."


Contact staff writer Chelsea Conaboy at 856-779-3893 or cconaboy@phillynews.com.