Economic growth has returned to the Central Coast — but not as fast as some might like. That was the message 270 local business leaders received Thursday during the Central Coast Economic Forecast Mid-Year Update.
Tourism and taxable sales — local staples for recovery — are expected to pick up later this year and into 2013, while jobs haven’t quite caught up, said Christopher Thornberg, founding partner with Los Angeles-based Beacon Economics, who presented the event at the Paso Robles Event Center.
Local housing has also turned the corner, Thornberg said. The inventory of homes for sale, a key marker in how the housing market is faring, is declining overall. He forecasts a moderate housing recovery over the next few years.
The Atascadero and Paso Robles chambers of commerce organized the event as an update to the annual economic forecast held each fall in San Luis Obispo.
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“The economy has started to expand on multiple levels, and I really do feel that will get us over this particular soft patch,” Thornberg said.
The county’s tourism industry, he added, has been a rock in the local economy and has been largely unwavering since the economy tanked in January 2009.
“SLO County hasn’t seen the same bounce in (hotel) occupancy rates as the rest of the state because you didn’t see the downs as bad as theirs,” he noted.
San Luis Obispo County’s hotel occupancy rates fell just a little more than half of a percent in three years spanning from January 2009 to April 2012, according to the data presented.
Employment is slowly coming back, Thornberg said, and is forecast to grow nearly an additional 2 percent in the next two years.
Thornberg presented statistics for San Luis Obispo County’s job gains and losses per industry from April 2011 to April 2012.
Overall, the county’s labor force — 140,700 jobs this year — has increased 2 percent during that period.
But some areas have been hit harder than others. Among them is the transportation, warehouse and utilities category, which declined the most at 11 percent, or 400 jobs, during that period.
Manufacturing lost 300 jobs in that same time, giving it the second largest industry losses in the county at a 5 percent dip year-over-year.
That’s a statewide trend, Thornberg added, noting that manufacturing jobs such as food processing and furniture plants — outside of the technology industries — are hurting the most.
San Luis Obispo County’s mining, logging and construction industry saw the largest percentage gain — 12 percent — in the same 12-month period, gaining 600 jobs.
Retail trade jobs saw an uptick of 5 percent, with 700 more jobs added year-over-year. In April, the retail industry provided 13,600 jobs in the county.
“You cannot talk about the economy locally without first talking about jobs,” said Maggie Cox, a member of the Central Coast Economic Forecast board of directors.
She served as moderator for a trio of local business leaders who answered questions on what job growth has been like in their companies: engineering manufacturer Specialty Silicone Fabricators in Paso Robles, robotics engineer Trust Automation Inc. in San Luis Obispo and energy utility PG&E.
Managing tighter staffs, dealing with employee turnover and job recruitment were among the concerns.At Trust Automation, which has 52 employees overall, 90 percent of its technology staff comes from Cal Poly, company co-founder Ty Safreno said.
College graduates are also key to Specialty Silicone’s employee pool, company president Kevin Meyer said, but turnover among its younger staff is a struggle.
Both he and Safreno said it’s difficult keeping younger workers and their families here, citing factors such as local housing prices and a lack of enough diverse jobs overall.
The panel conceded that working with tighter staffs has been an adjustment.
“It’s definitely the new normal,” Safreno said.