Tag Archives: employment

The November 2011 BLS report

While everyone else is busy gnashing their teeth and tearing their hair about Detroit’s insolvency and the cancellation of light rail plans and the myriad other bleak Ghosts of Christmas Yet To Come, let me instead point you to a cheerful Ghost of Christmas Present, in the unlikely guise of the BLS’ latest state unemployment report.  Here’s a rundown of the 11 states with the highest unemployment rates in November 2011:

  • Nevada – 13%
  • California – 11.3%
  • District of Columbia – 10.6%
  • Mississippi, Rhode Island – 10.5%
  • Florida, Illinois, North Carolina – 10%
  • South Carolina, Georgia – 9.9%
  • Michigan- 9.8%

That’s right.  No fewer than 7 Sunbelt states (8 if you count D.C.) have higher unemployment rates than Michigan including two states that were until very recently economic development darlings, North Carolina and Georgia.  Also for the first time in many years, to my knowledge, we’ve moved ahead of Illinois. This remarkable progress was driven by the biggest drop in unemployment of any state, -0.8%.

The usual caveats apply:  this just reflects a change in how many people are actively seeking work and doesn’t reflect all the poor souls who just gave up and left the labour force.  No one will deny we have plenty of those.  I’m not by nature an optimist.  But I’ll take the good news where I can.


My problem with the Occupy movement

I don’t especially mind the lack of coherence or structure in the Occupy Movement.  Thanks in large part to Dahlia Lithwick’s persuasive column on the Occupation, I have a better understanding of why the Occupiers choose to remain vague about their goals and decentralized in their decisonmaking.

What bothers me are the sites they are choosing to Occupy.  The location of the original Occupation makes sense because it’s on Wall Street, the epicenter of the problem they are trying to confront.  But cities like Oakland, Portland, LA, Detroit, & Ann Arbor are not power centers for Big Finance.  For the most part they are financially precarious municipalities that are already at a disadvantage compared to their neighbors, struggling to provide basic services to their populations.  Their mayors and police forces have enough on their plate without having to worry about crime and sanitation and infection control in a new encampment.

Meanwhile, no one is occupying the suburbs, exurbs and rural areas where most of the affluent live, comfortably shielded from the Occupations and the various externalities they generate on the surrounding neighborhoods.  With the exception of Wall Street and Washington, D.C., none of the encampments are located at sites where they could personally impact people in positions of state or national power, or anybody in the “1%.”

While I don’t understand why Mayor Bloomberg felt it necessary to stage a stealth break up of the Wall Street camp at 1am, I think it’s perfectly reasonable for the mayors of these cities to say enough is enough when those externalities start to disrupt daily life for those who live and work in the city.  (People do actually live and work near Zuccotti Park besides investment bankers and hedge fund managers, after all.)  The Occupy movement still enjoy plenty of good will from Americans, based on poll numbers.  To retain that good will, they will need to adjust their tactics and remain flexible, however.  They should resist letting single-mindedness and conviction become myopia, or allowing self-expression spill over into selfishness.  There is absolutely no reason for the mayors of central cities and OWS to be on opposing sides, when in truth they face common threats.

Richard Florida’s Top Cities for Recent College Grads

The ubiquitous Richard Florida’s latest concoction is a ranking of the “top cities for recent college grads.” Oh, where to begin?  I tend to roll my eyes at Florida, the Rachael Ray of urbanism.  But being a fairly recent (2006) college grad myself, and one who has had plenty of second thoughts about the choices I’ve made, this particular effort caught my eye.

Some of the top-ranked cities on Florida’s list make sense to me: Denver (#17), San Diego (#9), Seattle (of course) (#8), and #1 Washington, DC, which is consistently one of the best job markets in the country.  Others strike me as ridiculously unaffordable for most new grads (or anyone else, for that matter):   Los Angeles (#19), Boston (#6), New York (#5), or San Francisco (#2).  As Florida explains, “We decided not to include an affordability variable because we thought the key was to get that critical first job and launch your career — even if you have to double or triple up with roommates.”  And eat Ramen.  And skip a gym membership.  And postpone opening a 401(k).   And getting a second job as a prostitute on the weekends.  I started out earning $25,000 a year in my first job.  It was a challenge, and that was in very-affordable Lansing.

As I’ll discuss later, some of these cities make sense if you are going into a particular field, but otherwise it seems insane to me that a recent college grad would just show up in San Francisco or New York without a job lined up unless they had affluent and wildly indulgent parents, or a significant other who could help them float til they found work.  Honolulu (#18) gave me an especially good laugh — Florida is forgetting that Mom & Dad are going to expect visits on Thanksgiving or Christmas, and that airfare is going to add up.  And God forbid Grandma should die, because then the last-minute flight there and back for the funeral will set you back three months’ rent.

A more viable option in Florida’s list is to be to go from one college town to another — or just to stay where you are, which is what I did twice (once after earning my bachelor’s and again when I finished my master’s degree). In order of increasing rank, Florida suggests Charlottesville, Raleigh, Lincoln, Columbus, Bloomington, Boulder, Baltimore, Columbia, Durham-Chapel Hill, Boston, Madison, and Austin.  As Florida notes:

College towns like these have highly-skilled, resilient economies that have been among the best at weathering the economic crisis. They are great hold-over place for grads thinking about their next move, whether it’s the job market or onto grad school.

One nice thing about this particular ranking is that it does not dismiss flyover country or cold-winter cities: see 23. Fargo (#23), Lincoln, Nebraska (#20); Iowa City (#12); or Columbia, MO (#11).  And bigger isn’t better, on this list:  tiny Bloomington and gritty Baltimore are several spots ahead of LA.

How does this measure up with my own experience?  What is most striking to me is what cities are missing; for example, the Twin Cities, Chicago, & Nashville are all surprisingly MIA.

The unemployment rate appears to have knocked off a lot of places.  The default choice for my friends from my undergraduate alma mater, Michigan State University, has been Portland (OR, not ME), but it didn’t make Florida’s list, probably because of its poor employment outlook.  Atlanta, where I almost moved in 2006 (due to family connections there), is missing as well, likely for the same reason.  The choice of data source, the most recent American Community Survey, seems to have doomed Ann Arbor, which normally does so well in Florida’s various rankings. The most recent ACS numbers are from back in 2009, when Ann Arbor’s unemployment rate was still a bit higher than most of the cities on this list.  (Another variable in Florida’s ranking is the cost of renting, which is rather high in Ann Arbor.).  Ann Arbor’s and Atlanta’s absence highlights the fact that the employment outlook, as measured by the ACS, is not a very consistent indicator, since it changes so much over even just a few years.  Atlanta’s job market was on fire when I graduated in 2006, for example; likewise, before fall 2008,  Phoenix, Las Vegas, Charlotte, and a host of cities in Florida (the state) all seemed unstoppable.  Now they are struggling, and places that were deeply out of fashion a couple of years ago (Pittsburgh?) boast some of the best employment rates in the nation.

Ultimately, this is kind of a stupid exercise, because the best city for you to be in depends on your career path.  For my friends pursuing dance, art, musical theater, opera or fashion, NYC was practically the only choice; for those in acting, LA or NYC; for publishing, NYC again.  (Who really is able to find a job in publishing these days, though?)  For IT, you go to San Jose (#7 on Florida’s list) or San Francisco (#2).  For public affairs, you either go to DC (#1) or (for Michiganders) Lansing.  And in this economy, if you have a job offer with a company, you go wherever it is.  What kept me in Ann Arbor last year after I finished my master’s degree, apart from my partner, was a job offer, not my innate passion for the place.  (As much as I love my Prius-driving, organic soymilk-drinking, granola-eating, parks-obsessed little People’s Republic…)

If you are a gay guy or a lesbian, then you have some additional considerations and REALLY have to do your research.  By a number of factors, including affordability, having  lots of gay men, and reasonable proximity to family, Columbus or Chicago would have been great options for me.  I had a really big chip on my shoulder about Chicago when I graduated, because it seemed expensive (compared to the Lansing area, where I’d gone to college), the winters are even nastier than in Michigan, and — worst of all — everyone I knew from my hometown seemed to move there after they finished school.  In retrospect, though, it would have been a good fit, especially given how much value I place on public transit today.  (Speaking of which, I would have added a public transit variable to Florida’s formula, since you can save so much when you are young and cash-strapped by going without a car.)

Finally, my climate preferences have changed significantly.  Back when I was in college, I spent the freezing winters constantly walking from one end of campus to another, between work, school and extracurriculars.  In contrast, I spent summers either studying abroad or shuffling around in a T-shirt and shorts.  So I swore I wanted to go someplace with milder winters.  Having to arrive at the office without being soaking and stinky is a consideration that did not weigh so heavily back then.  Now that I’ve had four years of commuting to work in business attire, I’ve gained a new appreciation for cooler weather.  I’ve declared most of the Sunbelt off limits, since I sweat like a hog in the summer.  Many complain of the fog, the rain and the constant chill of San Francisco or Seattle, but it sounds AWESOME to me.  Washington, DC:  I love you, honey, but I hate your summers.

I’ll give Florida credit for acknowledging a statistic which more than any other renders moot rankings like these: “Don’t feel too bad if you’re moving back to your parents’ house. According to a widely-reported recent survey, that’s where some 85 percent of your classmates are headed too.”

Readers, what do you think about this list?

Transit & job sprawl: the Brookings “Missed Opportunity” report

I haven’t had time to read much of it yet, but I am mightily intrigued by the Brookings Institution’s new report, Missed Opportunity: Transit and Jobs in Metropolitan America.

Findings of note from the first few pages:

  • Midwestern cities in general, save for Chicago, do pretty abysmally in terms of the share of population with access to transit.  A pleasant surprise:  metro Detroit appears to beat Indianapolis, Columbus and Madison on this measure (see map, page 7).
  • Also surprisingly, LA and San Jose do better than San Francisco & NYC with respect to the share of residents with transit access.
  • Metro Detroit actually does pretty well wrt typical transit frequency (page 11).

Some other Detroit-specific findings:

  • Metro Detroit’s job sprawl can only be described as horrific — it is below the average for the 100 largest metros by every measure.
  • The interactive map is particularly helpful.  It confirms transit coverage & access is best in Detroit and in the inner suburbs, especially the Woodward & Gratiot corridors.
  • Travel time is best in the centrally located near-west/northwest sides of Detroit.  Job access is atrocious except for Ferndale and certain chunks of Detroit (Palmer Woods, Palmer Park, & the area just across 8 Mile from Southfield).

Bloggers at the New Republic have posted several insightful analyses on this particular report.  Adie Tomer asks, “Do metro areas with well-established transit systems provide the best access to jobs?”

 (W)e were surprised to find uneven results in these places. Well-known rail systems in Chicago and Philadelphia trailed overall access levels in Los Angeles, the archetypal auto-oriented metropolis. Boston’s classic T system doesn’t match the access in mostly bus-reliant Seattle. What’s going on here?

One explanation is that many of the largest metros face serious job sprawl.

As Tomer notes in another TNR post, Brookings’ mapping tool is ground-breaking, and potentially useful for everyone from employers deciding where to locate an office, to social workers, to prospective realtors and prospective homeowners:

For the first time, people across the country have the opportunity to compare how transit serves their neighborhood versus others in and outside of their metro.  We have no doubt it will be useful in all sort of decision-making within the public and private sectors.  And that utility extends to households, too.  As Morgan Clendaniel from Fast Company noted, it’s a great tool for workers moving to a new residence.

In a third TNR post, Alan Berube observes that the data helps illustrate why “we shouldn’t celebrate transit for transit’s sake”:

Great, you’ve got a bus that goes through your neighborhood–where does it take you? How long does it take to get there? In particular, can it get you to your job … or the job that you want to have? That’s hardly the only reason people use transit, but it’s arguably the most important for the economic health of metro areas.

And this is where the letdown occurs. We found that even if you give the typical metropolitan commuter a very generous 90 minutes to ride transit in one direction, she could reach less than one-third of the total jobs in her metro area. If you’re a less-skilled service worker–the type of person who might rely on transit–you can reach an even lower share of metropolitan jobs in the industries most likely to employ you. Whoops, dropped call…

You can have lots of transit, and still fail to reach a lot of regional jobs within a reasonable amount of time (Chicago, we’re looking in your direction). Conversely, you can have modest, unsexy transit and deliver workers from their homes to a majority of regional job centers efficiently (hello, Tucson).

Transit simply must be part of a successful 21st century metropolitan economy… transit can and should do much more to promote access to jobs. In part, that means coordinating much more closely between transportation, housing, and economic development planning…

Bottom line–transit can’t be all flashy apps and high design (Take light rail to the ballpark! Live in a condo above a streetcar!). In an era of constrained fiscal and natural resources, we need to focus on how transit can best contribute to economic growth. Simply, it’s about jobs.

Berube’s warning is especially timely here in Detroit, in light of the Detroit Dept. of Transportation’s (DDOT) recently proposed service cuts.   As much as I love the idea of expanded rail service in Detroit, it is perplexing for the city to commit to operational costs for the new Woodward light rail system at the same time it is slashing its bus services (and for that matter, its entire budget, as Mayor Bing and City Council are advancing the most radical fiscal overhaul the city has ever seen.)  There’s plenty to debate about the Woodward rail project, but I’ll save that for another post.

Another recent report I’ve been meaning to get around to, but have not yet, is Transit-Oriented Development (TOD) and Employment from the Center for Transit-Oriented Development. (HT Streetsblog)  Given this wealth of analysis for me to sift through, stay tuned for more posts on the Woodward rail, job sprawl, and other transit-related topics.

The recovery in Southeast Michigan

http://www.urbanophile.com/2011/09/14/2010-gdp-data-shows-nascent-recovery-in-many-american-metros/  Metro Detroit & Ann Arbor both in 4th (2nd-best performing) quintile, Lansing metro in top quintile for 2020 GDP growth —  ahead of Chicago, any of the big metros in Ohio, Milwaukee, Madison, & on par with the Twin Cities & Indianapolis.

Things are picking up, according to the Bureau of the Labour Statistics.  Of all U.S. metro areas,

Detroit-Warren-Livonia, Mich., experienced the largest unemployment rate decrease from March 2010 (-3.3 percentage points)…
In March 2011, Detroit-Livonia-Dearborn, Mich., registered the highest jobless rate among the divisions, 12.7 percent… (But t)he two divisions that make up the Detroit-Warren-Livonia, Mich., metropolitan area posted the largest rate declines from a year earlier: Warren-Troy-Farmington Hills and Detroit-Livonia-Dearborn (-3.4 and -3.3 percentage points, respectively).

West Michigan does even better, with the Grand Rapids, Holland, and Benton Harbor-St Joseph metros all rapidly improving their jobs rankings. (HT BurghDiaspora)

The Hamilton Project’s mobility bank

(P)ublic policy should help poor people, not poor places.–Ed Glaeser, Triumph of the City

I came across this ingenious concept from the Hamilton Project, as I do so many other cool ideas, via Urbanophile:

The paper proposes the creation of a “mobility bank” at a government cost of less than $1 billion per year to help finance the residential moves of U.S. workers relocating either to take offered jobs or to search for work, and to help them learn more about the employment options available in other parts of the country. Whereas those with college degrees and savings are much more likely to move in response to job loss and to improve their job market outcomes, those with less skills and no savings may have difficulty financing such transitions. The government should target mobility bank loans toward displaced, unemployed, and underemployed people in depressed areas of the country and should help to insure people against job-outcome uncertainty by making repayment terms contingent on the borrower’s postmove employment and income. This proposal extends government support for work-related moves that already are included in the U.S. tax code but that primarily benefit higher income households. Calculations suggest that the benefits compare favorably with the costs from alternative federal efforts. Perhaps more importantly, our proposal helps address a persistent market failure that limits the ability of low-income families to borrow against future earnings to “invest” in job-promoting residential moves.

Aaron Renn (Urbanophile) expands upon the idea:

The idea is that a lot of people are effectively stuck in economically depressed communities because they are underwater on their house or simply can’t afford to move. They can then become a drain on their community for social services… If we could help them move to a location where the economy is better or better matches their skills, such as by getting them out of their mortgage, this could be a win-win-win…

We don’t have a tradition of just writing off places, and those that stand to lose people under such a program would no doubt be offended that the feds or others were actually helping to rob them of what they see as their most precious resource: their people.

There’s a huge debate out there over helping people vs. helping places. From what I see, most commentators say that we should do both, but we should more emphasize people. But this is a difficult concept to operationalize in practice…

The idea is that people who are in communities in the top third in terms of unemployment would qualify for mobility loans from the federal government of up to $10,000. The amounts could be used for moving related expenses for moves over 50 miles, but also for things like traveling to cities to scout out opportunities and interview for jobs. These would be administered like student loans and run by the same agency. As with student loans, repayments would not start until the person who borrowed the money was gainfully employed. But to reduce the disincentive to work, repayment amounts would be capped… and would fully be considered paid off after 120 payments, even if the full principal amount was not yet repaid. Yes, this means there could be a subsidy, but the authors consider that worth it.

Part of their rationale is mobility overall has been declining… Also, mobility has been lower for people with lower educational attainment, unsurprising given their generally lower earnings power to fund moves, interview in other cities, etc.

Urbanophile commenters were decidedly skeptical.  One of the stronger arguments comes from ds:

Why don’t we instead pay rich people to move into more economically depressed areas?

In real terms, abandoning communities is incredibly wasteful. That is the whole point behind the argument against sprawl. Building an entirely new infrastructure while letting an existing one rot is a waste of real resources.

While I see where ds is coming from — in fact, I couldn’t agree more — this strikes me as fighting a war we lost at least 50 years ago.  The fact is that, whether urbanists like it or not, most Detroit suburbs now have their own full-service infrastructure, and they aren’t going anywhere.  We are simply overbuilt, like much of the Rust Belt (and since 2008, Florida, Phoenix, large swaths of interior California, etc…).

It’s been a while since I worked in human services in Detroit, but research suggests it can be a particularly difficult place for low-income people to advance themselves due to the lack of proximity to higher-paying jobs; the crime rate, which leads to high car insurance costs; and the school system, of which I have already said plenty.  The main reasons Detroit is still at around 800,000 mostly poor people are that A) a large number of the residents who DO have work are the employed by the public sector (DPS, the city, the state, and the federal government) and B) those who don’t have work, don’t have the means to move to states with low unemployment (say, North Dakota), or to neighboring areas with lower unemployment like Ann Arbor.

Hell, for many (I’m going to continue to rely on weasel words til someone can point me to survey data on the topic) even making it across 8 Mile is economically infeasible in the short term.  Given a choice between staying for free with my grandma on the prairie off Mt. Elliott and taking the bus to my job at Burger King, versus having to shell out part of the same meager paycheck at a Burger King for rent in, say, Madison Heights, it seems easier to just stay put with Grandma and to put up with a longer police response time and the lousy schools and whatever other complaint du jour you could cite.  This may be in spite of one’s better long-term prospects in Madison Heights;  it has been argued that generational poverty, after all, fosters a short-term outlook (see, for example, Ruby Payne’s thesis).

Helping the unemployed find work elsewhere would relieve pressure on public services while maintaining most of the city’s tax base, shrinking the city to a more sustainable level, say, 500,000 people.  And there is no reason to confine it to the city:  the same could happen in Detroit’s suburbs, which also suffer from high unemployment among people who can’t afford to relocate.

Our elected officials and the media are obsessed with population growth as a primary metric for success, where a drop in population signifies failure.  It shouldn’t.  See Pittsburgh, which has received much favorable press for its turnaround this decade even while its metro has lost a significantly higher percentage of its people than has Detroit’s.

As you may have gathered from the opening quote, my interlibrary-loaned copy of Triumph of the City finally made it down the queue to my impatient little hands.  I can’t tell you how excited I am, and you can bet I will dedicate at least a couple of posts to Glaeser’s ideas before the library recalls it for the next borrower.  In the meantime, if you haven’t had the chance to check the book out for yourself, let me point you to Lewis Lehe’s witty and informal review over at Rust Wire.  I haven’t made it to Chapter 2, which is basically going to be all about how and why Detroit crashed and burned, but Lehe wisely reminds us to take it with a grain of salt:

Glaeser comes close to using Detroit as a synecdoche* for the entire Rust Belt, which is a pete peeve of mine. Pittsburgh is 68% percent white, and a third of its adults have a bachelor’s degree. Detroit is 77% African American, and only 12% of its adults have bachelor’s degrees. Both places are solidly Rust Belt, yet their demographic differences mean each city faces entirely different day-to-day challenges, as readers of this web site know.

*Reminds self to start using the word ‘synecdoche’ in my daily vocabulary…

Connecting skilled workers

In my last post, I cited Mary Walshok’s strategies for addressing the mismatch between worker skills and employer needs.  One of the major prescriptions she offered was getting a region’s employers involved in worker training.

“Reskilling” and networking can happen on a smaller and less formal scale too. This week, Ann Arbor Chronicle co-founder & editor Dave Askins described one part of the value he finds in his membership at the Workantile Exchange, a membership-driven work space in downtown Ann Arbor:

The Workantile membership includes a range of independent workers – from novelists and attorneys to filmmakers and computer programmers. They are generally a cordial, friendly, and talented bunch of people. And on occasion I’ve taken advantage of their talents and expertise in the same way that I did with the accountant.

So the value of my time spent at The Workantile is not measured by asking: How many words did you write? How deep was the snow in that spot over there? It’s measured by the increased depth of understanding in various subjects that I can achieve, by letting the expertise of other members accumulate until it covers me from head to toe.

When I was a student at UM’s School of Information I had classmates who bought memberships at the Workantile.  Over in Detroit, the Imagination Station project has plans for a similarly themed space across from Roosevelt Park in Corktown.  (They’re fund-raising, by the way, and are getting a match from Fifth Third Bank, so you should head over and donate a few bucks right now!)

Collective spaces like the Workantile and Imagination Station can provide ways for students and job-seekers to network, collaborate, find jobs, build start-ups, and just plain learn from colleagues and other professionals.

As Jacobs, Glaeser, and so many other urban economists have demonstrated (Stephen Johnson’s Where Good Ideas Come From was a recent fast read that summarized the literature on the topic), cities at their most successful function as creativity hubs, fostering invention and growth among their collocated citizens.  Southeast Michigan must find ways to apply this insight both as part of the kind of coordinated regional effort Mary Walshok describes, and on the tiny but meaningful scale Dave Askins finds at Workantile.  Our region needs to cultivate the kind of marketplaces where skilled and talented people can find, and learn from, one another.