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At panel, N.J. economic experts say hiring on hold until economy rebounds

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Many midsize New Jersey businesses have been resilient in the face of a slow recovery and the fiscal and political dysfunction in Washington, and they are looking for more consistent positive signals from the economy before making the commitment to hire more workers to fuel growth.

That was one view that emerged from a roundtable discussion of New Jersey business trends hosted by the accounting and consulting firm Deloitte today at its Parsippany office.

Participant Tom Bracken, president of the state Chamber of Commerce, said companies have maintained profits by reducing their work forces, and "when top-line revenue growth comes, I think you'll see an increase in the employment base — but we're not there yet." And John Galandak, president of the Commerce and Industry Association of New Jersey, predicted there will be pockets of growth as "entrepreneurs and small to midsized companies figure out new and better ways to serve their clients, and start investing in them."

Despite the high unemployment rate, there are jobs that cannot be filled because employers can't find workers with the right skills, said Philip Kirschner, president of the New Jersey Business & Industry Association. "So employers are saying, 'Give me a young guy or gal who is eager, is bright has a good work ethic, and we will try to teach them what they need to know.' There are good jobs going begging."

Kirchner said companies are saying they'll using temp workers for now, "but until we see a consistent spike in sales and demand, we are not hiring permanently. That has been the most frustrating thing among all our members: you have a good quarter and then you have a flat quarter, and you can't make plans based on that."

Certain industries are holding their own, like biotech. Bill O'Donnell, director of public affairs at trade group BioNJ, said new companies are coming here — the state saw an increase in companies from 300 to 340 over the past two years, with employment rising from 15,000 two years ago, to 16,040. But, he said, in 2012, companies "are not as optimistic about hiring as they were even two years ago."

Several participants credited Gov. Chris Christie with helping improve the state's image in ways that are encouraging more companies to consider locating in New Jersey — and said Washington should emulate the bipartisan approach that has worked for Christie in New Jersey.

"He has created a brand and an interest in the state of New Jersey," Kirschner said.

Galandak said "there is a perception that the state is a better place," which is partially "the Christie factor, and just the fact that people are taking notice." He said companies "don't make a decision to locate in a state overnight — it's a long-term process, but by putting the pieces in place, now you are setting the stage for growth in the near future."

Bracken said New Jersey "has such enormous potential and partisan politics gets in the way greatly of us achieving that potential — and it's really a shame."

Beth Fitzgerald

Beth Fitzgerald

Beth Fitzgerald reports on health care, small business and higher education. She joined NJBIZ in 2008 after a 34-year career at the Star-Ledger and has been reporting on business in New Jersey since 1978. Her email is beth@njbiz.com and she is @bethfitzgerald8 on Twitter.

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