WILDWOOD — Daniel Check, of Lower Township, went to the Wildwood One-Stop Career Center recently to apply for a job.

Check was laid off two years ago from his position as a slot-machine attendant at Trump Taj Mahal Casino Resort in Atlantic City. Since then, his only work has been a summer job at Morrow’s Nut House, a Cape May candy shop.

The 52-year-old said he was optimistic, even though he conceded that in this economy nobody who is looking for work in South Jersey has much reason to be.

“It looks good. You’ve got to keep pounding the pavement and never give up,” he said. “The off-season has gotten bad. Even the casinos have had tons of layoffs. If I could get my wife to agree, I’d go south where there’s year-round work. Maybe Florida.”

Cape May County has one of the nation’s worst job markets — sixth-worst in unemployment among 372 metropolitan areas nationwide.

Cumberland County is nearly as bad at just 18 places from the bottom. And the job market in Atlantic County ranks 21st worst in the country — an improvement from the previous month when it clocked in at No. 20, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. And that was before 1,600 employees at the now-defunct Atlantic Club Casino Hotel were laid off last month. South Jersey’s employment picture is worse even than Rust Belt cities such as Flint, Mich. (42nd worst) and Detroit (64th worst).

What happened?

Economist Richard Perniciaro, director of Atlantic Cape Community College's Center for Regional and Business Research, said South Jersey has seen sharp cutbacks in what little manufacturing base it had, including the glass-making and boat-building industries, all exacerbated by the 2007 recession.

“We outperformed the rest of the state in employment growth in the 1990s,” Perniciaro said. “But we don’t really have anything to fall back on as the rest of the state loses high-paying jobs. We didn’t have a lot to begin with.”

The state’s casino industry has seen harsh cutbacks, none worse than the closing last month of the Atlantic Club.

And while the region’s tourism industry continues to be a bright spot — Cape May County tourism grew by nearly 4 percent in 2012 — it remains merely a seasonal source of income for tens of thousands of workers.

Other parts of New Jersey are faring much better, particularly the Trenton region, which ranks in the top third in national employment.

“North Jersey has the financial sector and the service sector and the pharmaceutical industry. But those jobs are disappearing, too,” Perniciaro said. “The real question is how do you get out of this? The truth is we don’t have the industries that will get us out.”

South Jersey has seen some setbacks, such as the much-delayed offshore wind industry. The application for the state’s first wind farm by Cape May-based Fishermen’s Energy is awaiting approval by the state Board of Public Utilities after nearly three years.

And the Pinelands Commission recently voted down a plan by South Jersey Gas to extend a natural-gas pipeline to the B.L. England generating station in Upper Township.

Meanwhile, the Stockton Aviation Research and Technology Park, formerly called NextGen, has been slow to develop.

The state was only marginally included in a federal program to commercialize the use of drone aircraft, a burgeoning industry that holds the promise of tech jobs. Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University will use some site locations in New Jersey as part of their drone research.

“It’s not a secret: You need to diversify the economy,” said state Sen. Jim Whelan, D-Atlantic. “We are overreliant on tourism. Again, for us as a region, we have to look at not being so reliant on the casinos.”

Employment was a major theme of Whelan’s re-election campaign last year. Every week, people approach him about the struggling economy and jobs, he said.

“It’s heartbreaking because in a lot of cases these are people I know,” he said.

“At Atlantic Club, I know people who opened that building and have been through all the different management over 30-plus years,” he said. “They spent a career there. Now they’re asking, ‘What am I supposed to do?’”

The region’s unemployment is “not a pretty picture,” he said. “Those are pre-casino numbers. That’s the kind of thing we saw in the pre-casino era in Cape May and Atlantic counties — three months of hurry and nine months of worry.”

In recent years, freeholders in Atlantic and Cape May counties made cutbacks to their economic development programs.

Cape May County Freeholder Director Gerald Thornton, of Middle Township, said the county’s focus rightly has been on sustaining and supporting its No. 1 industry, tourism.

“Should we have appropriated money for economic development over the years? Absolutely,” he said.

Increasingly, he said, Cape May County residents are looking outside the area for work.

The county is one of the few in the entire Northeast to lose population, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Its public school enrollment  shrunk 15 percent, to 12,917, in the past 10 years.

“Younger families are moving out to seek employment. Meanwhile, our food stamps and public services are up 23 percent in the last three years,” Thornton said. “That’s having a significant impact on Cape May County.”

The county will spend more than $100,000 on economic development this year as it did last year, he said. It also supports a Lower Township tax-abatement program to spur business growth at the Cape May Airport, he said.

Meanwhile, a new cottage industry of wineries has emerged, which double as tourist attractions, he said. And the commercial fishing industry is expanding its aquaculture along the Delaware Bay.

“What we have to address is wintertime unemployment,” Thornton said.

State Sen. Jeff Van Drew, D-Cape May, Cumberland, Atlantic, said that as bad as the employment picture is, it could have been worse had New Jersey shut one of the region’s biggest public employers, the Vineland Developmental Center.

Van Drew and other public officials lobbied to keep the center open, preserving at least 1,400 public jobs.

He said the Economic Opportunity Act the state passed last year has special provisions designed to benefit South Jersey’s economy. It offers incentives to help the small businesses that make up a majority of South Jersey’s economy.

Van Drew said sustaining tourism and existing casino jobs is a priority.

“It’s a major driver for the entire region. We need to really focus on bringing conventions in and creating an atmosphere that gives conventions a reason to come here,” he said. “We need to make Atlantic City cleaner, safer, brighter and nicer. Convenience gamblers can go anywhere now. Three years later, we’re still not there yet.”

The state’s commercial-fishing industry has been another bright spot in the economy. The Port of Cape May ranks No. 2 on the East Coast and No. 5 in the country in value.

“People underestimate this industry. We have to fight more for it. We need to look at more processing of these products right here,” he said.

And Van Drew said higher education, as always, plays a big role. The Richard Stockton College of New Jersey and the community colleges must help prepare students for careers available in South Jersey.

“We are educating people in South Jersey for jobs that do not exist,” he said. “We have to steer students into areas where there are jobs, like health care.”

Colleges including Atlantic Cape offer numerous classes to retrain workers, said Jean McAlister, of Galloway Township, associate dean of continuing education. The college regularly collaborates with major employers in South Jersey to identify their needs.

For example, the college and others like it in Salem and Cumberland counties offer specialized training to 60 students, many of whom likely will interview for jobs with South Jersey industries.

“And they believe all 60 students likely will have a job when they’re done,” she said. “We’re talking about people who are changing careers as well as people who are just entering careers.”

McAlister said she follows government policy, government funding and consumer habits to predict employment trends. She saw the decline of the state’s private solar-energy industry coming when government subsidies began to shrink and then disappear.

“As soon as the funding stopped, the jobs stopped being as lucrative,” she said. “I stopped our solar program because of that. That’s how we’re keeping up with what’s happening.”

McAlister said Atlantic Cape’s graduates will have a big influence in shaping South Jersey’s economy.

“That’s something we have to do: Make sure people are ready to go when the economy does rebound,” she said. “If we can predict what’s happening, we’ll offer the right training for the right job.”

Contact Michael Miller:

609-272-7217

More than 30 years’ experience reporting and editing for newspapers and magazines in Illinois, Colorado, Texas and New Jersey and 1985 winner of the Texas Daily Newspaper Association’s John Murphy Award for copy editing.