Differences in Employment Growth across Metropolitan Areas
In the last decade, different metropolitan areas of the United States have experienced dramatically different levels of employment growth. Stark contrasts can be seen, for example, when we compare the 50 metro areas with the highest employment growth between 2001 and 2011 to the 50 with the lowest (using the 100 largest metro areas in the U.S. based on their 2001 populations).
Employment expanded by 13 percent in the high-growth metros but only 1 percent in the low-growth group. Though both groups lost significant employment during the Great Recession, the low-growth group lost almost 5 percentage points while the high-growth group lost roughly 3 percentage points. Even if we focused on employment growth only up to 2007, the same patterns would hold and the specific metropolitan areas within each group would change little (12 metro areas would switch categories).
Given these substantial differences between high-growth and low-growth metro areas, it might be surprising that unemployment rates do not diverge across metro areas more than they do. In January 2013, for example, average unemployment rates were 7.7 percent in the high-growth group and 7.8 percent in the low-growth group.
The long-term patterns of employment reflect, to a greater extent, changes in the size of the local economy—not utilization rates of labor. One can see this by looking at the relationship between population and employment. Employment growth and population growth are highly correlated (correlation coefficient=0.72). Metro areas that experience high employment growth also experience high population growth, and vice versa, during the period in question. This does not necessarily mean that population growth causes employment growth. Rather, employment and population growth are jointly determined. Better job prospects in a region will attract people to the area, and higher population growth in an area will cause economic activity to rise and increase the demand for labor.
In the Fourth District, metros tended to have weaker employment growth than other metros across the country. This pattern is consistent with the overall relationship between employment and population growth, however, since population growth in Fourth District metros was also weak.
Employment-to-population ratios diverge much less across the two groups of metropolitan areas than employment-growth rates. Still, low-growth metro areas have underperformed and their employment-to-population ratios have declined by about 1 percentage point more than those of high-growth metros.
One factor behind the trend in the employment-to-population ratio is that population share is moving from low-growth metros to high-growth metros, and this is reflected in employment. However, simple differences in population growth are not the entire story. Industrial structure has worked against the low-growth metros: They are much more focused on manufacturing than the high-growth metros. In 2011, for example, low-growth metros had 40 percent more manufacturing workers than the high-growth metros, and manufacturing represented a greater share of their overall employment (7.4 percent versus 4.9 percent)—although this gap had narrowed since 2001 (when it was 10.8 percent versus 7.2 percent). Even though the negative shocks to manufacturing during the decade were widespread, low-growth metros also lost a greater proportion of their manufacturing workers than higher-growth metropolitan areas.
Between 2001 and 2003, manufacturing employment in low-growth metro areas declined by 790,000, whereas high-growth metro areas experienced a more moderate decline of 457,000. A large gap was apparent between 2003 and 2008, when low-growth metro areas lost 432,000 manufacturing jobs and high-growth metros lost only 66,000. And the contrast in manufacturing employment trends was again apparent between 2008 and 2011, when low-growth metros lost 609,000 manufacturing jobs and high-growth metros lost 377,000.
That said, industrial structure explains only a small fraction of the difference in employment growth between high- and low-growth metros. If one replaced the industrial structure of the low-growth regions with the industrial structure of the high-growth regions, but kept each group’s original sectoral employment growth rates, the overall difference in employment growth between the two groups of metros would shrink by only 18 percent. So even if the metro groups had similar industry structure in 2001, it is likely there would still be a large gap in growth rates between our high- and low-employment growth rate metros.