Houston's economy has 'a long way to go' to fully recover from COVID-19 recession

HOUSTON, Texas -- After a year during which the Greater Houston region lost more jobs than in the Great Recession and the oil downturn of the 1980s combined, experts with the Greater Houston Partnership are projecting job growth in 2021 will fall between 35,000-52,000.

Patrick Jankowski, senior vice president of research for the GHP, said at a Dec. 8 event that reaching the higher end of that range depends upon the successful rollout of a COVID-19 vaccine and the reduction of new-case numbers.

Across the U.S., Jankowski said, about 22.2 million jobs were lost, and 140,000 businesses were closed during the pandemic in 2020.

"Some [businesses] closed temporarily; unfortunately, some of them closed permanently. That's the way we decided to try to handle the virus," he said. "And we did it to control the virus, but we created some very significant damage."

GHP estimates show Houston has added back about 176,000 jobs since losing 350,000 by the end of April, but Jankowski said challenges still lie ahead for the coming year.

"We're creating jobs, but we still have a long way to go to recoup everything we lost," he said.

Administrative and support services is projected to be the employment sector with the most gains in 2021. Jankowski said this is because when the economy picks up, companies hire contract workers on a temporary basis and often end up bringing them on permanently. This category also includes outsourced positions, such as office cleaning and security services, he said.

Nearly every other industry is also expected to see some job growth, but the energy and retail trade industries are likely to see employment declines.

While the beginning of 2021 is expected to have many of the same challenges as Houston has seen this year, Jankowski said things will start looking up around midyear when vaccinations are underway for the general population and COVID-19 infection rates are trending down. In the second half of 2021, he said, global growth will start to ramp up, people will start traveling more and pent-up demand will be unleashed.

Several white-collar sectors have already fully recovered locally from the job losses that took place this spring, including professional, scientific and technical services; finance and insurance; utilities; and transportation and warehousing. Many of these employees can work remotely, Jankowski said. On the other end of the spectrum, industries that have not made any progress in the recovery process include government, information, wholesale trade, manufacturing and energy.

Jankowski said he encourages residents to continue social distancing and wearing face masks as COVID-19 cases surge amid the holiday season and to get vaccinated when they have the chance. According to county data, 1 in every 22 Harris County residents has contracted COVID-19 in 2020, and more than 3,000 residents have died from the virus, he said.

"We will not see significant growth in Houston or in Texas or in the U.S. until we get the virus under control," he said. "The difference is about 17,000 jobs for Houston."