LOWELL -- If you think the state's reputation as a high-tech hub gives Massachusetts an edge in the economic recovery, think again.

While the country continues to make modest employment gains, Massachusetts has seen its job market worsen over the past year, according to experts. In fact, there are fewer jobs available in the state now than in 2001. The state's unemployment rate has crept up this year, reaching 7 percent in June, the closest to the national average it has come in four years.

Don't expect the trend to turn around any time soon, said Robert Forrant, a professor with UMass Lowell's Center for Industrial Competitiveness. Early indications all point to little spending increases for back-to-school shopping nationwide, a trend Massachusetts will surely follow, Forrant said.

Andrew Sum, director of the Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University, said it now takes the typical jobless worker about 30 weeks to land a new one, and the jobs they find are often part-time positions. Experts are seeing workers struggle to find jobs in all industries, including in the technology sector.

"We have never seen anything like this," Sum said of the duration of unemployment for average laid-off workers.

Lowell, which has attracted some technology jobs and a spate of construction projects in recent years, isn't exactly doing better than the rest of the state, either. Last year, the city had 34,490 jobs held by workers, slightly down from 34,556 jobs in 2001, according to Forrant.


Advertisement

During those years, the number of filled jobs increased slightly in nearby Lawrence from 23,942 to 25,413 and declined statewide from 3.27 million to 3.25 million.

Lowell's unemployment rate this June was the same as a year ago at 9.3 percent, according to Barbara O'Neil, director of the Greater Lowell Workforce Investment Board. Greater Lowell, including such towns as Chelmsford and Dracut, saw a similar trend as its unemployment rate ticked up from 7.4 percent in June 2012 to 7.5 percent this June.

Statewide, the unemployment rate hit 7 percent in June, compared to the national average of 7.6 percent. This comes after nearly four years of the state having at least a 1 percent edge over the national rate. Sum said some of the 144,000 people who had given up on finding jobs earlier this year resumed their job hunts in June, pushing up the unemployment rate on paper.

Sum doesn't know what prompted many workers to look for jobs again in June, but speculated that they could no longer stay put after unemployment benefits ran out. Those who withdrew from the labor market are "hidden" from the statistics because the unemployment rate does not take into account those who haven't looked for job in four weeks, according to Sum.

Old industrial cities that have focused on redevelopment, such as Lowell, are weathering the economic slump somewhat better than their counterparts. But whatever is happening in the state economy affects each region, Forrant said.

"The Greater Lowell area can't do well without the state doing well," Forrant said.

So, why is Massachusetts' economy not growing?

That's one question for which no one seems to have an answer, Forrant said, calling it a "peculiar situation."

What experts do know is that the trend is common throughout New England, Sum said. And the official unemployment rate only tells part of the story. When using the most recent household census data, Massachusetts' unemployment rate is believed to be as high as 8.4 percent, Sum said. There are also countless "under-employed" workers who cannot find full-time jobs as well as those who gave up on finding one. When lumping them all together, 550,000 workers, or 15 percent of the state's labor force, are needing jobs, Sum said.

Unemployment is an even more serious problem among younger people and those 50 and older. The teen unemployment rate is 35 percent to 40 percent in some parts of the state, and experts are concerned that the delays in gaining formal work experience could profoundly affect the generation, Forrant said.

Sum said it takes workers over age 50 about 40 weeks to find a new job. 

Mike Epsztein, owner of the Chelmsford-based office of Express Employment Professionals, said companies his business has dealt with are hiring 10 percent to 15 percent more than they did this time last year. Occupations range from those at call centers to auto-parts manufacturing, and he sees increased hiring across the board.

In Greater Lowell, manufacturing, scientific and technical support, and health care were the three best-performing sectors in job growth during the first six months this year, O'Neil said. Manufacturing includes engineering jobs.

Sum said technology sectors are doing better than other industries in Massachusetts, but aren't adding many jobs, either.

Forrant believes the federal budget cuts known as sequester have hit Massachusetts hard because many jobs are tied to federal research grants and defense budgets. Many businesses in Massachusetts also have large client bases in Europe, where the economy has been stagnant, Forrant said.

The economy is slowing down across the world, Sum said.

"We are not getting much help from anywhere to benefit the Massachusetts economy," Sum said.

Follow Hiroko Sato on Twitter @satolowellsun.