The latest news on unemployment was as grim as expected: More than 5 million people have lost their jobs since the beginning of 2008 and the unemployment rate surged to 8.5% in March, the highest in 25 years, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported Friday.
It may seem as if no place in the U.S. is untouched by job losses. But another report the BLS released last week reveals that the jobs market, like housing, is local. Every month, the BLS examines unemployment trends in 372 metropolitan regions (known as Metropolitan Statistical Areas or MSAs). The report lags the more well-known Employment Situation report by one month, so the data is from February. But it clearly shows that some places are weathering this recession better than others when it comes to jobs. According to the report, 14 areas posted jobless rates of at least 13%, including Detroit, Michigan and Fresno, California while 20 areas registered rates below 5% in February, including Ames, Iowa, Manhattan, Kansas, Lincoln, Nebraska , Lubbock, Texas and Lafayette, Louisiana.
Harvard economics professor Edward Glaeser says the disparity in unemployment in regions around the U.S. may seem random but it isn’t. According to Glaeser, some places are able to weather an economic downturn better because of specific characteristics of their local area. Not surprisingly, Glaeser’s research finds a strong correlation between a skilled workforce and lower unemployment. Currently, 15.1% of high school dropouts are unemployed while just 4.2% of college graduates are out of work. For people with a high school diploma, unemployment is around 9%. The higher the educational level of a metropolitan area, the lower the unemployment rate.
As in past recessions, there’s also a clear link between unemployment and manufacturing. Industries that have been declining for decades like textile, paper and car manufacturing are more likely to layoff masses of workers during a downturn. You can see that relationship at work in the MSA unemployment report, where old industrial cities like Detroit, Waterbury, Ct. and Youngstown, Ohio have double digit jobless rates.
Most interestingly, Glaeser finds that unemployment also is closely correlated with “job sprawl”. In MSAs where jobs are spread out and people have long commutes to work outside a city core, like Los Angeles and Detroit, unemployment is higher. Meanwhile, unemployment is lowest in areas where jobs are centralized. According to a Brookings Institute report released today more than 30% of jobs in utilities, finance, insurance and education are located within three miles of downtowns, while at least half of the jobs in manufacturing, construction, and retail are more than 10 miles away from central business districts.
Of course, you can’t always pick where you work. Family ties or a home purchase often keeps you in a particular geographic area. But if you are looking for work and have any flexibility to move, keep a close eye on the monthly MSA report if you want to know where the jobs are. - Donna Rosato