While the national economy remains sluggish, there are signs that in the Granite State, the recovery is slowly but surely taking hold.
It appears that New Hampshire has regained nearly all the jobs it lost in the recession. In fact, in April, there were actually more private-sector jobs here than there were in April of 2008, before the crash.Bruce DeMay, director of the Labor Market Information Bureau at New Hampshire Employment Security (NHES), cautions against reading too much into any monthly job figures."What I typically say is let's wait until we get an entire year's worth (of data) ... and see where we are," he said.
Still, it looks promising. The state unemployment rate is 4.4 percent, far below the 6.3 percent national rate. And economic development officials point to a recent surge in interest by businesses looking to locate or expand here.
Then there are those job figures. In April, 2008, there were 644,600 (not seasonally adjusted) non-farm jobs in New Hampshire, including 546,800 in the private sector and 97,800 in the public sector, according to NHES.
This April, there were 644,000 jobs here - 551,200 in the private sector and 92,800 in the public sector.
The peak actually came in June of 2008, when there were 659,300 jobs, 566,100 of them in the private sector. So economists will be watching closely to see what happens this month.
The public sector actually gained jobs after the recession hit, in part due to stimulus funds from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, and also in response to increased need for government services.
By April, 2010, there were 100,200 public-sector jobs here, but only 519,400 in the private sector, for a total of 619,600, according to NHES. And while jobs in the public sector have increased each year since then, there has been a corresponding decline in the number of government positions.
Some economists point out that many of the jobs lost during the recession were in manufacturing and construction, which paid higher wages, while many of the job gains since have been in lower-paying fields such as retail or hospitality.
Still, Jeffrey Rose, commissioner of the state Department of Resources and Economic Development, said he's optimistic that things are picking up.
Among the recent positive developments he points to:
. Comcast announced an expanded customer service center in Hudson will bring in 200 jobs by year's end, with the potential for up to 600 jobs in the future.
The state's new Seacoast Aerospace Initiative seeks to attract Canadian companies to a "defense and aerospace cluster" that includes Dover, Portsmouth, Rochester, Somersworth and the Pease Development Authority.
Clothing manufacturer Codet, Inc., announced it will build an addition to its Colebrook plant and hire 25 new employees.
The Balsams Project, which Rose said "has transformational potential for the North Country," including hundreds of new jobs.
The Pettengill Road development in Londonderry, including a new UPS logistics and distribution center, and a Fed Ex center that will bring 100-plus additional jobs to the area.
Rose also noted that he and Gov. Maggie Hassan this month will lead a trade mission to Turkey, joining representatives of seven Granite State companies. "What better way to expand New Hampshire's businesses than presenting new markets to those businesses for their goods and services?" he asked.
So with all this good news, why don't most people feel like things are back to normal?
Dennis Delay, economist for the New Hampshire Center for Public Policy Studies, said home values have an effect on how wealthy people feel. During the housing boom, he said, "You had double-digit increases in housing prices. And that gave a lot of people the ability to borrow against the equity in their homes.
"You simply can't do that any longer."
Delay also noted that about two-thirds of the jobs gained since the recession ended paid below-average wages. "So I think there is an issue with job quality and, again, that has impacts on how people feel, and on the housing market."
He believes there's "a new normal" for the state now, with slower growth in population, income and tax revenues.
DeMay said the continuing problem of long-term unemployment also keeps people from feeling we've fully recovered. Nearly a third of those unemployed have been out of work for 27 weeks or more; before the recession, that was typically 12 or 13 percent, he said.
Russ Thibeault, president of Applied Economic Research in Laconia, would like to see more state support for economic development projects. "It takes a partnership, and I don't think that the public side is as willing as it should be to enter into partnerships with the private side to make things happen," he said.
"Historically, New Hampshire has been able to achieve good growth, and growth in well-paying jobs, with a by-and-large hands-off economic development policy, letting the private sector do it," Thibeault said.
But the competitive landscape has changed, he said. States such as Texas, South Carolina and Virginia are all offering "really powerful incentives" to attract jobs.
"Other states are eating our lunch now, where we used to sit back and be fed a steady stream of good-paying jobs. Now we have to struggle to hang on to what we have," he said.
Still, Thibeault has a lot of hope for the Pettengill Road project. "If you look at the history of the state over the last, say, 20 years, what you see is 'build it and they will come,'" he said.
It happened at Pease International Tradeport, and at Centerra Business Park in Lebanon, he said.
Rose said New Hampshire remains one of the highest-ranked states for doing business, due to its skilled workforce, favorable tax structure and "agile and responsive state government."
"But we do need to find additional ways to market and leverage our strengths that we have as a state," he said.
DeMay sees positive signs for the state's continued recovery: strong growth in retail, accommodations and financial sectors, as well as in educational and medical industries, which never lost jobs in the recession.
And average weekly wages have been rising steadily, reaching $928 in 2012, compared with $718 in 2003.
Still, DeMay agreed that the landscape has changed. "Will we return to the long-term growth rates that we had in the 1990s and early 2000s? That's probably unrealistic," he said.