San Diego's post-recession success comes with caveats, experts say

San Diego's North County touted at economic conference as post-recession success story, cautionary tale

These days, San Diego frequently is hailed as one of California’s post-recession success stories.

And in the northern part of the county — home to biotech hubs and clusters of information technology firms in Encinitas, Carlsbad, Escondido and other suburbs — the economy appears to be rebounding especially fast.

San Diego County, in fact, has the fastest-growing job market in Southern California, Mark Vitner, a senior economist at Wells Fargo & Co., said Tuesday after his presentation on U.S. and state trends at the North County Economic Summit.

One indication of that came Tuesday in the county jobs report from the state Economic Development Department. The county’s employers added 40,400 net new jobs in January, a 3.1% increase over the previous year’s January, the state agency reported. The number, however, was 20,100 lower than December’s figure.

San Diego’s life sciences and communications technology industries have been around for decades, Vitner said. But they have boomed lately as an aging global population demands drugs to extend life, methods to track and analyze health and gadgets to help ease their twilight years.

Other speakers at the event at the Sheraton Carlsbad Resort & Spa agreed. In the next few years, they said, San Diego’s rapid employment growth may slow, but the quality of jobs will continue to improve.

North County employment growth in construction, healthcare, information and professional, scientific and technical services has outpaced the state over the last four years, said Josh Williams, president of Carlsbad research firm BW Research Partnership Inc.

Employment in so-called tier 1 jobs — professional and technical positions that on average come with a $92,200 annual salary — surged 10% from 2010 to 2014 in North County, he said.

That’s a quicker pace than the 8% increase recorded in the rest of San Diego County and the 6% upswing nationwide. North County’s tier 1 jobs market also expanded faster than its lower-paying, lower-skilled counterparts, Williams said.

Countywide, the professional and business services sector added 11,300 jobs year over year — the largest gain of any category.

Separately, the county’s seasonally unadjusted unemployment rate increased slightly to 5.8% in January from 5.5% in December, according to the state’s data. But the rate is down from 7% a year earlier.

North County’s demographics have many employers concerned about planning for experienced workers to succeed retiring baby boomers.

Roughly a quarter of residents are younger than 18; nearly the same number are older than 55.

“I have a lot of retiring doctors,” said Wayne Knight, senior vice president of business development at Tri-City Medical Center in Oceanside. “I need to figure out how to replace them.”

Employers such as Qualcomm Inc. used to hire heavily from local schools but now “scour the Earth looking for top talent,” said staff engineer Michael D. Alston.

The company needs more programmers and recently started a program for local middle school students called Thinkabit Lab, he said.

“We now do a lot of hiring overseas,” he said. “It would be great to have more talent out of San Diego County.”

More than 3% of California’s population resides in North County, but the area produces just 1% of the state’s graduates in high-paying science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields.

Some 90,000 tier 1 workers who call North County home work outside the region, Williams said.

“The brains tend to live here, but a lot are going south or north to work for companies there,” he said.

And North County is starting to endure some of the side effects of a fast-growing economy, such as congestion and resource scarcity.

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