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Wake Up!

The announcement last week by Northrop Grumman Corp. (Grumman to those of us who have been on this Island awhile) that it will transfer 850 jobs from its Bethpage facility to Florida and California should come as no shock.

The company, once Long Island’s largest and best-known employer, has been sending jobs South for more than two decades. At one point, in the 1980s, the company employed 25,000 people on the Island, built the Navy’ premier fighter, the F-14 Tomcat, and, in the 1960s, built the Lunar Lander that took Apollo astronauts to the moon.

What is surprising, and disheartening, is the reaction of most Long Island officials, in both the public and private sector. And that reaction is, let’s not stir the pot. No questions asked as to why Long Island continues to lose high-tech, high-paying jobs. No questions about why it is so difficult to grow businesses here. No questions about why, even with high costs, California is able to grow and maintain a Silicon Valley and the Boston area is able to grow and maintain a high-tech corridor.

Instead, there is mumbling here, as there always is when good jobs leave, about the strides we are making to replace those jobs. So far, those strides, after 20 years and more of trying, have not made an awful lot of progress.

The Long Island Association, the region’s largest business and civic lobbying group, seems to be saying the loss of the 850 jobs is really no big deal. After all, the LIA says, the defense industry is now only a small part of the Island’s economy. True, but jobs in the industry tend to be among the highest-paying on the Island. And isn’t the LIA economist Pearl Kamer always saying that for each job lost at Northrop Grumman, two to three others are lost outside the company, which will now need fewer vendors. So that 850 could be a loss of as many as 3,000 jobs.

And what will the LIA say when some 800 homes on the Island go on the market as those who have lost their jobs leave the area? And what will the LIA say when this “small sector” disappears entirely, leaving the Island with fewer high-tech, high-paying jobs. What will the LIA say? In all probability, they will say, ‘It’s no big deal!’

So what has happened to this Island of ours? At one time, we had a booming defense industry. When it all began to disappear at the end of the Cold War in 1991, there was much yammering about software, medical and bio-technology and healthcare jobs cropping up. But all that seems to have cropped up are more places to shop in both Nassau and Suffolk and more plans to build shopping malls. Of course, there are   efforts to make things work. But the only image they conjure up for me is Sisyphus rolling that rock up the hill, only to have it roll back to the bottom again.

One of the problems is that we on Long Island have developed a bad rep across the country. We are perceived, as people who do nothing but complain, are unable to make any decisions about our future, and are unwilling to take chances. Most of our politicians have been of little use in the economic battles that take place between the states. We keep losing. The South and the West keep winning. We are known as the place JWoww calls home. And she doesn’t spend much time here. While there is no easy solution, there is a way to make a good start: our politicians and business leaders need to admit that the loss of these jobs is indeed a “big deal” and to stop trying to paper over our losses with bland reassurances that, somehow, the best is yet to come.

Doing so is a sure recipe for a scenario where we keep losing jobs, and adding more shopping malls.