Business & Economy

Fits and Starts: San Diego's recovery rides a biotech wave

Cranes at a construction site near downtown San Diego.
Cranes at a construction site near downtown San Diego.
Katie Orr/ Capital Public Radio
Cranes at a construction site near downtown San Diego.
San Diego Construction worker Dennis Gittens enjoys a drink following a long day of working on a new hospital being built in the area.
Katie Orr/ Capital Public Radio
Cranes at a construction site near downtown San Diego.
The headquarters of biotech company Millennium Laboratories in San Diego.
Katie Orr/ Capital Public Radio
Cranes at a construction site near downtown San Diego.
Lab Scientist Andrea Clouser- Roche in the offices of Millennium Laboratories in San Diego.
Katie Orr/ Capital Public Radio

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In San Diego, where the recession took a toll on the construction industry, biotech is leading the region's rebound.

Employment has grown by 2.5 percent in each of the past two years, and San Diego is on track for a third year as well. 

"We lost a lot of jobs," said Marny Cox, an economist with the San Diego Association of Governments. San Diego's construction industry was among the region's hardest hit during the recession. 

"Going into the recession, we were one of those areas that had high growth in our construction sector and housing," Cox said. "And so housing was hit dramatically. For example, we peaked at about 96,000 jobs in our construction sector, and it dropped all the way down to about 58,000 jobs." 

The industry has added back just a fraction of those construction jobs since the economy improved. Cox said the San Diego region lost more than 100,000 jobs overall, which is disproportionally high, given its national economic impact.  

Housing prices also took a hit. The region's median home  price fell more than 40 percent from a pre-recession high of $535,000. Values have only rebounded by about 25 percent. 

It could have been worse, Cox said. "The military and the visitor industry here are stabilizers. During the recession, for example, the construction industry would have even been worse had it not been for military construction here."

Nice to be needed again

Electrician Dennis Gittens grabs a beer after getting off his construction job. He's working on a new hospital being built in San Diego, and his days start early. But as Gittens takes a seat on the deck of a popular British pub, he says it's nice to be needed again. 

When he first moved to San Diego in 2012 and signed on with the union, it was three months before he got a job and health insurance. He says being out of work was tough. "There's credit card payments that keep coming in," he said. "There's rent. There's gas. There's car payments, everything. Insurance. Insurance was the biggest deal. I've never in my life been without insurance."

And even once he got a job, things weren't easy. After working for a while, he got laid off again.

And even though the construction industry has started to rebound, Gittens says there's still an uneasy feeling among his co-workers. "Over the past five years. the trust and the belief that you're going to be steadily working for life without too much time off has changed." 

In recent years San Diego has also become known for biotech companies, and experiments and tests are conducted in labs across the region.

A job in the industry drew lab scientist Andrea Clouser Roche and her husband to San Diego in 2007. For three and a half years she had steady work, and then her lab was closed.

Clouser-Roche was unemployed for a year. "That was pretty painful," she said. "A lot of people were like, 'Oh, isn't that great?' I said, 'You know, this is probably the crappiest job I've ever had.' It was a lot of work. Always working your resume, looking for positions, calling people. Making those contacts. And I'm a lab scientist. I didn't get to run anymore experiments, so ... ."

Cox said the biotech industry did lose some jobs during the recession, and some venture capital funds took a hit. But, on the whole, the industry is rebounding, he said.

That's something Clouser-Roche has noticed, too. After a year of being unemployed, she got a job at another biotech company. About one year after that, she got a phone call that led to her current job.

"One of my former colleagues, who is now at Millennium, called up and said, 'Hey, I know you found something, but I think we have a really neat opportunity for you here at Millennium,'" Clouser-Roche said. "So it's kind of been that change. Things have loosened up. It's not everybody fighting for one job now. There are really a lot more opportunities opening up."

This story is part of Fits and Starts: Stories of Recovery in California Cities, a partnership between KPCC and Capital Public Radio. You can read other parts of the series here. Please let us know what you think in the comments below, on our Facebook page or on Twitter (@KPCC).