In the decade The Press has published its Major Employers list, some familiar companies have thrived and others haven't survived.

In both cases, they have led larger trends that are altering the region's character and determining where the jobs are for southern New Jersey's growing population.

The employment picture evolving in the Major Employers list and federal labor surveys makes clear that health care was the place to be for the best job prospects in the past decade. Manufacturing was the most challenged sector, hospitality remained strong and farming fell off and then came back.

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While those trends offer some guidance on where to look for a good-paying career in the decade ahead, another is just starting that is expected to be the most important addition to the regional economy since casino gambling.

In good health

The top growth industry in the past decade has been health care.

Health care employment in Atlantic County alone jumped from 13,005 in 2001 to 16,105 in 2008, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics' most recent data.

The region's big provider organizations - such as South Jersey Healthcare in Vineland and Cape Regional Medical Center in Cape May Court House - have grown dramatically. None has grown faster or bigger than Egg Harbor Township-based AtlantiCare.

In 2000, AtlantiCare topped the Major Employers list in Atlantic County with 2,600 employees. Now, it has about 5,000.

AtlantiCare's multiple avenues of expansion in the past decade provide a road map for the future of the fastest growing segment of the regional economy.

Donald Parker, who as president and CEO of AtlantiCare Health Services develops new programs, described its broad new portfolio of businesses, including:

  • A same-day surgery center;
  • a health and fitness center;
  • primary care physicians offering family and urgent care in more than 40 locations from Cape May to Hammonton to southern Ocean County;
  • occupational medicine;
  • a supermarket-based care center and preschool education for the Atlantic City and Pleasantville districts.

While the Atlantic City and Mainland medical centers - where 80 percent of AtlantiCare's employees work - have grown substantially, the branches beyond hospitals are increasing their share of the health care marketplace.

"The services that will grow in the future will be in the community," Parker said. "We're focused on keeping people healthy, managing chronic illnesses and partnering with businesses to provide on-site health care, and that will accelerate heading into the community."

AtlantiCare opened the fitness LifeCenter in its health park in Egg Harbor Township in 2005, quickly added outpatient surgical and urgent care services, and this year opened its Cancer Care Institute there.

"We now have nine buildings on 22 acres there, and soon we'll break ground on another ambulatory care building there," he said.

The organization's growth rate this year is 4 percent, Parker said, a bit slower than the past few years.

Gainers, losers, endurers

Another stalwart of the regional economy looks wistfully at such growth.

The casino industry already was trimming its work force before the recession hit, with jobs dropping 4 percent the first half of the decade to 45,501.

Now with heightened competition and the economy in a severe slump, casino hotels have reduced their combined staffs to 38,404 as of Sept. 1 in an attempt to match costs to reduced revenues.

Leisure and hospitality in general - the largest part of the region's dominant tourism industry - has fared better. Outside the casino industry, jobs in the sector have held steady in Atlantic County. In Cape May County, leisure and hospitality employment increased 4 percent to 10,350 from the start of the decade to 2008, according to BLS figures.

Manufacturing's long, slow decline in the state continued in its southern region. The prominent glass industry, for example, employed 3,497 in Cumberland County in 2008 - down from 4,952 at the start of the decade.

Glass companies have come, gone and recombined as local factories try to compete with overseas operations. Comar Inc., of Buena, for example, sold its glass division to Gerresheimer Kimble Glass of Millville in 2007 to focus on its plastic droppers and other assemblies. That helped lower employment at Comar to 230 after reaching a high of 600 earlier in the decade.

Even major employer Atlantic City Electric, whose customers are captive, has trimmed its operations from 1,191 employees a decade ago to an even 1,000 today.

Farming started to wither, too, as the housing bubble diverted land in mid-decade, losing 40 jobs over a few years before hitting a low of 1,398 in 2004 in Cumberland County. Now, as demand grows for organic and local produce, the jobs are coming back strongly and 2,153 worked in the sector in 2008, the BLS said.

For an AtlantiCare-style success story, however, look in the strong retail sector, where Wawa has refined its business model and come to dominate the convenience market throughout the region. From 1,475 employees in 2000, Wawa now has a staff of 3,418 in Atlantic, Cape May, Cumberland and Ocean counties.

Dave Macdonald, regional real estate manager for Pa.-based Wawa, said the surge in employment is mainly due to replacing older, smaller stores with larger ones that often dispense fuel as well.

The new stores typically employ 50 to 60 people, he said, about double the staff at an older store.

And Wawa still is adding stores, with ones in the works for Stafford Township and Barnegat this year, he said.

But what's it pay?

Hospitality and retail provide many jobs, but they tend to be lower-paying and thus limited in their contribution to the regional economy.

"The drop last week in the income figures for New Jersey was scary," said Richard Perniciaro, director of the Center for Regional and Business Research at Atlantic Cape Community College in Mays Landing. "It sounds like everything we've been warned about, that we're in danger of becoming a state of hamburger-flippers."

BLS figures for average annual pay offer an only slightly less alarmist view.

Atlantic County's leisure and hospitality industry paid an average $31,281 in 2008, due to the casino industry. Such workers in Cape May County averaged just $19,528.

Supermarket workers, among the best paid in retail, averaged $24,928 in Atlantic County in 2008.

Compare that with the average pay for those slowly disappearing manufacturing jobs there, $45,352. And Cumberland County's glass industry paid even better - $50,511 on average.

Health care pays well - $46,590 in Atlantic County in 2008 - but we cannot make that the basis for the regional economy, Perniciaro said.

"Health care reflects the population size and demographics. It's not here to drive the economy nor be driven by the economy," he said.

The casino industry will help if it can make the transition to a younger and higher-value clientele, he said.

But the region is banking on getting growth in the decade ahead from what previously had been a small but significant segment: aviation research.

Future jobs cleared for takeoff

Practically every organization with a stake in the regional economy's future is backing the creation of the Next Generation Aviation Research Park to develop a high-tech sector.

"In all my years down here, the aviation research center has been the most proactive approach that's been done, at least since legal gambling legislation," Perniciaro said. "It's got almost universal appeal."

It's easy to see why.

With the Federal Aviation Administration's William J. Hughes Technical Center as its center, and significant military air facilities based nearby in the state, Atlantic County recently was judged the most cost-effective location for future aviation research on the East Coast by the Boyd Co. of Princeton, which helps businesses evaluate potential sites.

While the companies involved in such research would employ people at all skill and experience levels, many of the jobs would transcend pay levels in local industries.

Three BLS categories involved in this type of work each have seen modest increases in job numbers in Atlantic County this decade. Computer system design rose from a low of 853 workers in 2003 to 1,224 in 2008. Technical consulting and management went from 333 jobs to 442. And scientific research jobs increased from 110 to 183.

The number of jobs is still small, but consider the average pay: $77,291 for computer designers, $55,037 for tech consultants and $87,873 for scientists.

As the research park gets built in Egg Harbor Township, local colleges are gearing up to train workers for jobs related to the industry, Perniciaro said.

The Atlantic County Institute of Technology is creating a magnet program in science and technology as part of its $40 million overhaul, he said. Richard Stockton College is working toward offering a master's degree in computational science.

And Atlantic Cape Community College, where Perniciaro is dean of facilities, planning and research, is lining up funding for a science and technology building to start construction in the spring, he said.

If this diversification of the local economy into technology jobs succeeds, it won't take another decade for that to be the top story in regional employment.

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