In virtually every regional economic or demographic analysis that I conduct for Forbes, Rust Belt metro areas tend to do very poorly. But there’s a way that they could improve, based in large part on the soaring cost of living in the elite regions of California and the Northeast. And one of the rustiest of them appears to be capitalizing on the opportunity already: that perpetual media punching bag, Cleveland.
Between 2000 and 2012, the Cleveland metro area logged a net gain of about 60,000 people 25 and over with a college degree while losing a net 70,000 of those without a bachelor’s, according to a recent report from Cleveland State University. The number of newcomers aged 25 to 34 increased by 23 percent from 2006 to 2012, with an 11 percent increase from 2011 to 2012 alone. Most revealingly, half of these people came from other states. When it comes to net migration, Atlanta, Detroit, and Pittsburgh were the biggest feeders for those arriving with a bachelor’s degree, while Chicago, Manhattan, Brooklyn and Pittsburgh sent the most net migrants with a graduate or professional degree.
The picture of Cleveland that emerges from the Cleveland State University study is a very different one from that to which we are accustomed. Rather than a metro area left behind by the information revolution, Cleveland boasts an increasingly youthful workforce that is among the better educated in the nation. In 2009. notes University of Pittsburgh economist Chris Briem, some 15% of Cleveland’s workforce between 25 and 34 has a graduate degree, ranking the area seventh in the nation, ahead of such “brain centers” as Chicago, Austin and Seattle. Old Clevelanders as a whole will remain undereducated, but likely not the next generation.
What is driving this migration? Some of it has to do with a 25% expansion of STEM employment from 2003-13, much of it in health care tied to the region’s prestigious hospitals. This has helped spark a healthy increase in per capita income, from $33,359 in 2003 to $44,775 in 2012, a gain of 34%.
This growth has animated many neighborhoods, not only in the “cool” central cores but in a host of inner and outer ring neighborhoods. This process, note researchers Richey Piiparinen and Jim Russell, is even more evolved in a Rust Belt city that has been on the rise for some time now, Pittsburgh. Migration trends there first turned favorable in 2007 after decades of decline, and have remained positive.
The cost of living in Cleveland is considerably below the national average, not to mention that of the ultra-expensive coastal regions. Indeed, when cost of living is taken into account, per capita income in both Cleveland and Pittsburgh are now well above the national average.
Piiparinen and Russell also see a gradual movement of educated young people to other lower-cost, family-friendly places in the Rust Belt, including Indianapolis, St. Louis and Minneapolis.
These phenomena suggest that Rust Belt cities need to adopt new approaches to economic development. For years, civic boosters in places such as Cleveland fixed hopes on attracting the much ballyhooed “creative class” by building such things as the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, art galleries, trendy restaurant and even a massive downtown chandelier. This tactic recalls the old lite beer commercials: everything you want in a city, but less.
Yet, as Piiparinen and Russell point out, this approach simply expands consumption opportunities, and when it comes to consumption, Cleveland, Detroit and Pittsburgh can never top the U.S. capitals of excess: Manhattan, San Francisco, Los Angeles, or even Seattle. It’s hard to see hipsters moving en masse to any of these places without some degree of economic opportunity.
Piiparinen sees the current migration trends as reflecting “the Rust Belt’s productive economy versus its consumptive economy.” He proposes the focus should be to accelerate talent migration based on economic advantages natural to the region, such as medical services, advanced manufacturing and logistics.
These industries have high economic impact. Manufacturing, he traditional core of the local economy, adds 50 cents of GDP for every dollar in output, considerably more than information employment and almost three times the multiplier for retail jobs.
Despite the hopes to emulate post-industrial Boston, New York or San Francisco, Rust Belt states remain dependent on manufacturing; it accounts for 18 percent of Ohio’s GDP and 14 percent of Pennsylvania’s, more than twice as much as in New York and well above that in California. Increasingly, manufacturing will not provide many jobs for unskilled workers, but rather for trained technicians, certified crafts workers as well as highly educated college graduates. Ohio has established an extensive network of skilled training facilities to fill this need.
Critical to the process are the current manufacturing rebound, in which Ohio has added 50,000 industrial jobs since 2009, and the energy boom tied to the development of shale in both Ohio and Pennsylvania. Since 2001, energy employment in Pennsylvania has more than doubled, with much of the action in western part of the state abutting Pittsburgh.
Does that mean that Cleveland, or Pittsburgh, are about to experience Houston-like growth? Don’t hold your breath. The weather is too harsh, and the cities too small to compete with the vast opportunities presented by the burgeoning Sun Belt economies. Nor do they rank high as destinations for foreign immigrants, who have provided a boost to many larger local economies but as of yet have not “discovered” the Rust Belt in large numbers.
Yet not achieving hyper-growth does not mean continued decline. As older, less educated workers retire or leave the region, often for warmer climes, there is an opportunity for the Rust Belt to replace its current labor pool with one more attuned to the emerging economy and enjoy strong boosts in GDP growth.
The key here is melding the “legacy” strengths of these regions with shifting demographic and economic forces. The region is not only home to abandoned steel mills, but also six of the country’s top top 20 graduate engineering programs, according to U.S. News & World Report. The intellectual capital is there.
And economic forces could soon make these cities more attractive to newcomers from the rest of the country and abroad. The “spiky” cities embraced by urban boosters such as Richard Florida – who famously dissed Pittsburgh on his way out of town — increasingly are too expensive for even the educated middle class. This is why we are seeing young people who flocked to the Bay Area leave in their 30s or 40s. Places like San Francisco and Manhattan are great to the well-educated (and well-heeled), but as you get older, and look to buy a house or start a family, they are not ideal, unless you are extraordinary successful or have the right parents.
In contrast, the Rust Belt offers a vastly better value proposition. Housing in Cleveland is about one-fourth the cost, based on income, as in San Francisco. Not only that, but the choices are fairly broad, from new and old suburban to charming, single-family dominated urban neighborhoods.
These choices are encapsulated by the turn of phrase “Pittsburgh rich,” which essentially means that people settling there simply have better options than in places like New York or San Francisco. “We have an old housing stock that is very affordable,” notes University of Pittsburgh’s Briem. “Places like Pittsburgh and Cleveland offer a lot of areas that are very attractive at a low cost.”
Of course, such a transition will require some major rethinking among regional leaders and the abandonment of their traditional wannabe approach. Rather than apologizing for not being San Francisco, they should look at the prospects for a revival of energy and manufacturing. It’s working out for Pennsylvania and Ohio, which were among the largest recipients of new investment in 2012, ranking third and fourth among U.S. states. They were behind Texas and Louisiana, but well ahead of both California and New York.
Over time, this transition in the Rust Belt could prove a boon for the entire country. It does little good for either the resurgent Sun Belt or the sophisto havens on the coasts to have to subsidize a region along the Great Lakes in permanent decline. The Rust Belt retains many natural resources — oil, gas and, perhaps most importantly, water — that position it to be a major contributor to national growth. If the opportunity is recognized by a new generation, the future could prove surprising bright in what has long been seen as a fading region.