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Fits and Starts: Biotech Industry Rebounds San Diego Economy


This story is part of the weeklong series, Fits And Starts: Stories Of Recovery In California Cities,  a partnership between Capital Public Radio and KPCC. Find the full series here.

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

Fits Starts -SocialElectrician 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. There’s rent, there’s gas, there’s car payments, everything," he says. "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 awhile 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.”

Dennis -Gittens

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

Some of those worries might be justified. San Diego’s construction industry was among the region’s hardest hit during the recession.

“We lost a lot of jobs," says Marny Cox, an economist with the San Diego Association of Governments. “Going into the recession we were one of those areas that had high growth in our construction sector and housing. 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.”

Econcharts -Unemployment -So Cal

The industry has added back just a fraction of those construction jobs since the economy improved. Cox says 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.

Cox says, it could have been worse. “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.”

Econcharts -Home -SD

In recent years San Diego has also become known for biotech companies. 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.

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Lab Scientist Andrea Clouser- Roche in the offices of Millennium Laboratories in San Diego. Katie Orr / Capital Public Radio

Clouser-Roche was unemployed for a year. “That was pretty painful," she says. "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 says the biotech industry did lose some jobs during the recession, and some venture capital funds took a hit. But he says, on the whole, the industry is rebounding. 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.

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The headquarters of biotech company Millennium Laboratories in San Diego. Katie Orr / Capital Public Radio

“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.' 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," she says.

And that may be true for the region as well. Employment has grown by 2.5 percent in each of the past two years and San Diego’s on track for a third year as well.

Graphics by Melody Stone / Capital Public Radio

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