May 9, 2011 | last updated March 19, 2012 5:20 pm

Double-Digit Growth Predicted For This Decade | Health care, social assistance expected to be biggest job drivers

This decade is going to be better than the last when it comes to job growth in the greater Central Massachusetts region, at least according to a Washington, D.C.-based research firm.

Woods & Poole Economics Inc., which forecasts economic conditions for regions around the country, predicts that Worcester, Middlesex and Norfolk counties are projected to add 217,638 jobs by 2019, an increase of 11.6 percent.

That growth rate would be a vast improvement over the prior decade, during which the three counties put up a meager job creation average of 1.6 percent, totaling just 19,020 new jobs from 2000 to 2009, according to Woods & Poole.

While double-digit growth may sound impressive, Martin Holdrich, an economist with Woods & Poole, called the Central Massachusetts forecast "steady."

"I don't know if I would call it rapid growth," Holdrich said. "It's just below the national average."

Local Outlook

Worcester County is projected to lead the job growth charge with 50,473 new jobs this decade, a 12.3-percent boost that outpaces last decade's 11,124 new jobs by nearly fivefold, according to Woods & Poole projections.

Middlesex County, the largest of the three counties in both population and jobs, is set to make a recovery this decade by adding 119,222 jobs after losing a tenth of a percent, or 1,585 jobs, last decade, according to the projections.

And Norfolk County is projected to add 47,943 jobs compared to the 9,481 jobs it added last decade.

Massachusetts as a whole is projected to gain 10.9 percent this decade, or 447,970 jobs while the United States is projected to gain 12.4 percent, or 21.6 million jobs.

But some area officials think the estimates are too optimistic.

The Central Massachusetts projections don't jibe with those kept by the Central Massachusetts Regional Planning Commission (CMRPC), said Sujatha Mohanakrishnan, a transportation planner who uses such projections to prioritize funding requests for roads and bridges. Mohanakrishnan said that the CMRPC is prepared for slower growth this decade than Woods & Poole projects.

Mohanakrishnan said that the commission tracks statistics kept by the Department of Labor and Workforce Development, which predicts that Central Massachusetts will be trying to recover from prior job losses through the latter half of this decade.

She characterized Woods & Poole's projections as "very aggressive."

But Woods & Poole seems to be more in line with a national forecast from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, which projects job growth of 10.1 percent for the country. The bureau does not break down its projections at the state or county level.

Fast-Track Industries

Though not all local economic development and planning officials agree with the projections, some say they are happy to hold out hope.

Dr. Terence Flotte, dean of University of Massachusetts Medical School in Worcester, said that he thinks the 14 percent growth in health care and social assistance employment projected by Woods & Poole seems achievable.

Flotte said that the school will be doing its part to help the projections become reality by adding science and research jobs upon the completion of the $405-million Albert Sherman Center next year.

Flotte also expects research grant funding — which is a generator of well-paying jobs — to grow significantly over the next five years, following 54-percent growth in research grants since 2007.

"A lot of that turns into job creation," he said.

Attainable Goals

Tim McGourthy, Worcester's chief development officer, called the overall job projections "aggressive but achievable."

McGourthy said that economic forecasts can be used both in public policy — perhaps to identify which industries might need government assistance — and also to attract business investment.

"We want to show business and industry what's predicted," McGourthy said. "Using numbers like this is an interesting selling point."

McGourthy pointed to a 2010 Brookings Institution study that found that the Worcester metropolitan area achieved both the largest increase in household income and the largest increase in educational attainment in the country from 2000 to 2008.

McGourthy said that Woods & Poole's numbers appear to be showing that trend continuing into the future.

While a decade of growth would be a welcome respite from its recession-plagued predecessor, myriad unforeseen events could affect the actual outcomes, warned Alan Clayton-Matthews, an economist with Northeastern University in Boston.

For one, another recession could muck things up. But there are other factors as well.

"Typically, these forecasts assume that migration patterns will be the same in the future as they have in the past," Clayton-Matthews said.

He said that there is also usually a higher margin of error for such projections when they are broken down to smaller segments like a county.

But Clayton-Matthews said that the job growth estimates in the Woods & Poole study seem reasonable and said it is possible Central Massachusetts could achieve them.

Previous decades have seen double-digit growth in this area. For example, Worcester County saw 13 percent job growth during the 1990s, according to Woods & Poole data.

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