This week brought the bad news that Genaissance Pharmaceuticals, Inc., one of the biotechnology companies that have been touted as a critical part of New Haven’s economic revitalization, has fired 18 employees. While Genaissance executives issued reassuring statements about the industry’s future in the city, their analysis of industry adjustments and corporate restructuring couldn’t obscure the fact that made this a headline story: Those 18 jobs were 10 percent of Genaissance’s workforce.
Ten percent may sound like a lot in a headline, but in real numbers, it means that Genaissance has gone from employing 180 city residents to 162. Considering how many New Haven residents are either looking for work or for jobs in pay grades that will lift them out of poverty, losing 18 jobs won’t have a major impact on the city’s economy. Bemoaning layoffs in a highly specialized industry that still plays only a limited role in the city’s attempts to bring back economic prosperity is a classic case of crying over spilled milk.
A brief history lesson should make it clear why, despite substantial investments by Yale and a strong public-relations campaign mounted by the city, the biotech sector can’t bring economic prosperity back to New Haven. During the city’s heyday, more than 160,000 people lived and worked in New Haven. Many of them walked from their homes to factories that supplied hundreds, or in some cases, thousands of manufacturing jobs. Those jobs are gone now, either because the companies left New Haven for other cities, or because, like many of the industries in Connecticut, they were made obsolete and driven entirely out of business. It wasn’t simply that New Haven lost sheer numbers of jobs, though the numbers of positions that vanished along with the factories were staggering; it was that most of the lost jobs were low-skill positions that could be filled by anyone willing and able to work.
No one seems to believe that New Haven’s population, in addition to declining in size, has experienced a major demographic change. While the percentage of New Haven adults with high school and college degrees may have increased, the shift is not so dramatic that the city can use a knowledge-based industry to spark a New Haven-wide revitalization. While it is certainly a worthy, indeed, critically important goal to make sure that all city residents receive high-quality educations that prepare them for white-collar jobs, there are many people in New Haven who need jobs that do not require higher degrees right now. Yale has become the dominant employer of low-skill workers, the only entity with the capacity to fill thousands of positions at the University and Yale-New Haven Hospital. New Haven’s unemployment rate was, at the time of the last census, a full point higher than the rest of Connecticut, and the heralded biotech industry is not creating anywhere near the number or type of jobs that would help erase that gap.
That is not to say that the biotech industry should not be encouraged. Any investment in the city is important, especially if it encourages businesses that might otherwise put down roots in New York or Boston to keep their offices in New Haven, bringing in tax dollars and employees who will settle and buy homes in the city.
But it is deeply disingenuous to suggest that a relatively small industry is the new economic engine driving the city or that a group of companies providing highly specialized jobs is going to bring prosperity to many New Haven residents looking for a brighter economic future. Improving New Haven’s economic outlook cannot simply be accomplished by attracting more new residents and companies if the original citizens of New Haven continue to find themselves left out and looking for work.
Making a real investment in New Haven’s economic growth requires a careful balance between looking to the future and attracting businesses that can provide jobs right now, while offering job training and adult education classes that will help prepare increasing numbers of New Haven residents to take on higher-skill and higher-paying jobs as they become available. It’s nice to have an industry of the future located here, but New Haven needs to market itself as something more than the biotech capital of the Northeast if it wants to recapture the economic vitality of its past.
Alyssa Rosenberg is a junior in Silliman College. Her column appears on alternate Mondays.