Queens’ much-touted diversity isn’t just a matter of ethnicity; it’s also a matter of economics. And just as the powers that be cite the borough’s ethnic diversity as a strength, there’s no doubt that playing host to a wide and growing variety of industries opens up employment opportunites.
As the old saying goes, you don’t put all your eggs in one basket. And Queens has a lot of baskets. That fact, along with a slowly but generally improving economy, could be one reason why the unemployment rate is dropping here, lately at a faster rate than it has been nationally.
“We were never in it as bad as the rest of the country and the region,” Queens Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Jack Friedman said, referring to the recent recession, “and we’re coming out of it stronger than the rest of the country and the region.”
The jobless rate in the borough was 7.4 percent in May, according to statistics the state Labor Department released this week, compared to 8.4 percent in May 2012.
Just as importantly, that improvement of a full percentage point was reflected in the number of people working in the borough, meaning that the change wasn’t a result of people dropping off the unemployment rolls, as it so often has proven to be in the past.
More than a million people in Queens are working. In May the total was 1,047,100, according to the Labor Department, compared to 1,036,900 in May 2012.
While the unemployment rate here did increase between April, when it was 6.9 percent, and May, economists point out that it’s the year-to-year figures that really matter, because seasonal factors affect month-to-month statistics.
Other state figures demonstrate that over the long term, job growth is occurring in a variety of sectors in Queens.
One is retail, as more and more national chains move into the borough. In 2010, there were 6,532 retail companies in the borough, according to the Labor Department, with their average employment over the year totaling 55,531. By 2012, the number of retail firms had grown to 6,826, and their average number of workers had increased to 58,673.
“With large retailers, we had been underserved, and we’re seeing large national chains moving in,” said Elena Volovelsky, an economist with the Labor Department. “Queens is in a sense like Brooklyn. A lot of the growth is coming from industries that serve the local population, so these are often smaller businesses, but more larger companies are moving in, so we’re seeing more of a balance.”
Friedman noted that if the Willets West development proposal next to Citi Field goes through, even more national chains will move into the mall that’s planned there.
Another key sector in Queens, maybe the most important, is transportation and warehousing, mostly thanks to the presence of two of the nation’s busiest airports. As with retail, the industry has been growing, according to the state figures. A total of 2,003 companies provided 56,182 jobs on average in 2010, rising to 2,045 firms and 59,391 positions in 2012.
And travel naturally has an impact in other areas, especially hospitality, with more and more hotels going up, especially but not only in Western Queens.
“The airports obviously are big employers, and right now we’re seeing a pickup, especially with business travelers,” Volovelsky said. “That’s one of the reasons the hotel industry is expanding as well, in addition to the fact that every year we’re more and more popular as a tourist destination.”
“The biggest growth potential is hospitality and tourism coming off our airports, which are probably the biggest employers, when you consider all the ancillary businesses — the transportation business, the food business, hotels and restaurants — it’s all connected to the airports, ” he said. “The number of hotel rooms has grown exponentially, over 9,000. There are literally dozens of hotels opening.”
Another growing sector, one whose potential is only just beginning to become clear, is high technology. While traditional manufacturing continues to decline, companies such as Shapeways, the 3-D printing firm in Long Island City, are bringing a whole new type of production to the borough, Friedman said.
More high-tech growth is expected, especially in Long Island City, thanks to the $2 billion technology school Cornell University and Technion University of Israel plan to build on Roosevelt Island.
As the new campus is built, “You’re going to find that Long Island City will become a tech center because of its proximity to Cornell-Technion and because of the kind of space that tech companies want,” Friedman said.
The change to the borough’s commercial mix doesn’t mean all traditional businesses are going away, however. Friedman said the mom-and-pop shop is holding its own — especially those owned by recent immigrants that appeal to a certain ethnic niche. And according to Volovelsky, the restaurant business is growing. All the workers at those new companies and all the borough’s new residents need to be fed.