Measuring job growth: Brunswick Landing shows context matters more than hoopla

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BRUNSWICK — When companies announce plans to add a large number of jobs, the news excites the press and the community with the prospect of significant economic growth.

The effect of that news – and news coverage – is good marketing for the companies and the area; the former attracts workers and praise, and the latter benefits from the indication that it can support business and provide a labor supply.

In reality, though, adding jobs can be a slow, nuanced process – especially in a tight yet dynamic labor market like Cumberland County.

Last winter, two Brunswick Landing companies announced they would add a combined 700 jobs to the business park, what was the formerly the Brunswick Naval Air Station.

The plans were widely reported by news outlets – including The Forecaster – and one company held a press conference with Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, who praised its 200-job influx.

Nearly a year later, both companies are growing, but 700 new jobs are still in the distance.

Static points vs. trends

SaviLinx is a call center founded by Brunswick native and entrepreneur Heather Blease, which also employs people in Hattiesburg, Mississippi.

Last March, the company employed about 100 people – up from about three when is started in 2013 – when it announced it was adding 200 positions in Brunswick to support a new government contract. King, a Brunswick resident, attended a press conference at the company’s 74 Orion St. location to praise the job growth.

The company had another hiring surge last fall to accommodate a temporary contract to support health-care open enrollment.

The company declined to discuss the specifics of their private contracts, but Blease said Jan. 12 that SaviLinx now employs about 300 people, split about evenly across its two locations.

That means that since the announcement last fall, the company has added about 50 jobs.

Blease said the disparity between jobs promised and jobs delivered is the result of the SaviLinx business model: the company works on a contact-to-contract basis, so its workforce fluctuates over time.

The company submits job reports to the Mid Coast Regional Redevelopment Authority, the body charged with overseeing the former air base’s transition to a business center. In June 2016, employment had actually sunk to 67 employees, according to one report, but spiked to 167 by October.

MRRA Director Steve Levesque said the company peaked at around 450 employees across its two locations. SaviLinx declined to provide specific information.

Blease said projections change, and companies adjust.

“We work with our customers to project the number of employees we need to fulfill the terms of service on contracts. At times we might need to adjust numbers up or down depending on performance levels, call volumes, and other criteria,” she said in an email.

“We always build attrition into our numbers – this is part of what makes this business so complex,” she continued. “Our projections were a bit high on one contract after measuring initial call volume, and we adjusted. We met all of our hiring goals (in 2016).”

In an interview last week, company representative Alison Harris said job numbers at a static point in time don’t accurately reflect the success or nature of SaviLinx’s business.

But that begs the question: How accurate is the reflection when a company like SaviLinx promotes a major “point-in-time” jobs expansion?

Charles Colgan, professor emeritus at USM’s Muskie School of Public Service and former chairman of the state Consensus Economic Forecasting Commission, said it’s not uncommon for companies to draw attention to themselves when they intend to add jobs.

“Anybody who (pays) attention understands” that such an announcement “doesn’t mean 200 jobs tomorrow,” Colgan said. “It doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll all be full-time, year-round jobs.”

Where are the people?

Colgan’s advice can also be applied to the Boston-based online retailer Wayfair, which announced last February that it would open a 500-employee sales center under a 40,000-square-foot lease at the former Navy Exchange building on Burbank Street.

Since it started hiring last June, Wayfair has added 150 employees. It employs a mix of operational and sales workers, entry level to management, and unlike the SaviLinx call center down the street, doesn’t work on short-term contracts.

Site director Paul Drappi said Jan. 24 that the company will continue to hire in accordance with the needs of the business.

“It really comes down to the growth of the business,” he said.

While the company declined to discuss why it specifically chose to open in Brunswick, spokeswoman Kate Margolis said the company selected Brunswick based on data that suggested the ability to thrive economically.

That suggestion surprised Ryan Wallace, economic forecaster and director of the Maine Center for Business and Economic Research at USM’s Muskie School.

“Where are they going to find the people?” was his reaction to Wayfair’s announcement last winter.

Wallace’s remarks were in contrast to those of Sen. King, who said “too many jobs is a good problem” when he spoke at the press conference announcing SaviLinx’s plans to add 200 employees.

Wallace noted Maine has a labor shortage, which he attributed largely to the state’s aging workforce. On Monday, the Maine Department of Labor announced unemployment in the state in December 2016 was 3.8 percent, down from 4 percent in November and 4.1 percent a year ago.

“We have really low unemployment rates, (and) part of that is because our labor forces dropped off,” Wallace said. “We just haven’t have that replacement (of younger workers) come in.”

He said Maine’s labor force, estimated at 700,000, includes 25 percent more workers in the 65 and over age bracket than the national average.

Brunswick’s job market is even tighter. In December 2016, Cumberland County had an unemployment rate of 2.6 percent, and neighboring Sagadahoc County’s was at 2.7 percent.

However, Peter DelGreco, president of the nonprofit Maine & Co., which helps bring companies to Maine, including Wayfair, said Brunswick is situated in an ideal location to draw workers from nearby cities like Portland, Augusta and Lewiston; MRRA makes the same argument for Brunswick Landing in a regional profile on its website.

The context heightens the success at the Landing, which has exceeded job growth expectations, and, as of this month, is home to more than 100 businesses and more than 1,200 workers. In a Jan. 12 newsletter, MRRA credited SaviLinx and Wayfair as economic drivers, among other aviation and technology companies.

Colgan praised MRRA for creating jobs that courted specific sectors of the economy as a means to combat the constraints on the labor market.

“They made a good (decision) to connect to the technology and innovation center,” he said. “… That was exactly the kind of decision they needed to make to not just replace jobs, but also build something new.”

Colgan said call centers like SaviLinx, which offer temporary work, might also be in a unique position to recapture older people in the labor force who don’t want full-time jobs.

“Often, companies like call centers are criticized for doing part-time jobs. But often in the Maine environment, that’s not a bad thing at all,” he said.

Blease said while nearly all of of SaviLinx’s employees are permanent, the company has hired students or retirees for seasonal work.

DelGreco also explained that marketing an area’s success can create a perception that attracts other businesses; he called this the “multiplier effect.”

Citing the successful turnaround of defunct, Belfast-based MBNA office buildings into a campus of diverse companies, DelGreco described how the area “started to see that people were willing to take chances on the infrastructure was already built out and (the area) could prove the labor.”

To his point, just a month after SaviLinx said it was adding 200 jobs, a real estate developer referred to the announcement at an April Planning Board meeting as a reason to invest in residential housing in Brunswick.

The specific jobs may not have materialized in full, but the news of them did. To DelGreco’s point, the effect is likely positive; to Colgan’s and Wallace’s, it should be taken in context.

Callie Ferguson can be reached at 781-3661, ext. 100, or cferguson@theforecaster.net. Follow Callie on Twitter: @calliecferguson.

Editor’s note: SaviLinx spokeswoman Alison Harris is not the same Alison Harris who chairs the Brunswick Town Council.

The SaviLinx call center at Brunswick Landing announced last spring it would add 200 jobs to support a new contract. About a quarter of those jobs still exist.

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Reporting on municipal, school, and community news in Brunswick and Harpswell. Bowdoin graduate, Wild Oats sandwich-eater. Callie can be reached at 207-781-3661 ext. 100, or cferguson@theforecaster.net.
  • Chew H Bird

    So sometimes “fake news” is good news?

  • poppypapa

    Is that the same ‘Alison Harris’ who chairs the Brunswick Town Council?

    Read the article twice, and think about the various euphemisms and happy-speak being used, and you’ll get a sense of how ‘experts’ like Colgan and others work.

    • Chew H Bird

      If it is the same Alison Harris, this is what is on her web page as her first listed priority: “As a citizen of Brunswick and as a Town Council candidate, these are my initial priorities: Increase tax revenue through thoughtful economic development in defined growth areas that respects Brunswick’s unique character and quality of life.”

      Increase tax revenue is her first priority? Wow…

      • EdBeem

        She didn’t say increase taxes, she said increase tax revenues through economic development, ie attracting businesses, creating jobs. That’s what you want town officials to do.

    • Callie Ferguson

      For clarification, this was a different Alison Harris – not the chairwoman of the Town Council.