Jobless Island

How many Islanders are out of work? No one knows for certain, but we know the numbers are rising to near record levels, mirroring the rest of the country and now apparently the world. The New York Times reported last weekend that fifty million people are forecast to be out of work by the end of this year, as unemployment spreads around the globe like wildfire.

And the year has just begun.

On the Vineyard unemployment is at an all-time high, even considering that this is the off-season. Beyond the numbers, the jobless rate is hard to decipher, in part because the Island has few reliable tools in place for economic analysis. The Martha’s Vineyard Commission can provide a breakdown of the workforce by sector only.

The size of the Island workforce is just over eight thousand, according to the Ryan report, an economic profile prepared for the Island Plan last year. But that does not count the Island’s significant underground economy; the report found that there are sixteen unreported jobs for every hundred jobs on the Island, representing some thirty-four million dollars in unreported income

Hard statistics that track the home rental, retail, restaurant and burgeoning Island wedding industries are hard to come by. The Martha’s Vineyard Chamber of Commerce does not keep hotel occupancy numbers.

The Steamship Authority provides good numbers in its traffic statistics which are released monthly. And traffic this year on the boat line is down.

Construction, a large sector of the workforce, is known to be experiencing a sharp downturn. Building starts have dwindled to almost nothing, and real estate sales are nearly at a standstill. Many of the Island’s owners of large homes and seasonal residents are financially strained this year due to the ills on Wall Street. But because the Hampton-like homes that have been built here in the last ten years and their surrounding properties have high demands for upkeep, it follows logically that the work of landscapers will remain relatively steady, and that the very best contractors will likely keep their very best clients.

But in the end here, as elsewhere, how the Island weathers the recession will become a story of survival of the fittest. Businesses and homeowners who are overextended with no rainy day savings — and some of them will undoubtedly be our friends and neighbors — may be in trouble if they lose their jobs and can no longer meet their financial obligations. Island bankers report delinquencies are high, but they are often high in the winter. Come spring, we will know more about the true effects of the recession in our own community.

Meanwhile, as the unemployment rate climbs, anticipation continues to build over what summer will bring on the Vineyard.