Several Recent Reports and Articles Offer Variable Views on Best Cities for Work and Most Substantial City Comebacks from the Pandemic

By George Lorenzo – Published July 21, 2021 by Workforce Monitor – Subscribe to the WFMonitor eNewsletter

On June 10, 2021, the National League of Cities (NLC) released its 2021 State of the Cities report – an analysis based on a survey of local officials from nearly 600 cities, towns and villages, along with an assessment of 57 mayoral speeches – to show how cities have fared during the pandemic and how cities are positioned for the future.

 In brief, the NLC report revealed that local officials were concerned about the following:

  • 91% said insufficient funding was the top factor impacting their decision-making on local infrastructure projects.
  • 68% reported that small businesses need emergency assistance.
  • 63% reported increased homelessness.
  • 39% noted that their roads and bridges were falling apart.
  • 37% indicated that affordable housing is the most prominent factor driving negative outcomes.
  • 20% indicated broadband availability as a leading positive driver.

Many cities are a long way from returning to something closely resembling our pre-pandemic normal life. How do these challenges and outcomes ultimately influence the near future of work in our nation’s cities?

Emily Badger, in a July 10, 2021 New York Time’s article, writes about how sweeping predictions about the future of city life have been floating around since the pandemic began.  Folks would be moving to the country in droves because living in the denseness of crowded big cities was not a healthy option. “The appeal of a yard and a home office would trump demand for bustling urban spaces.”  Video conferencing would replace the face-to-face connections that have always been prevalent and economically important for cities.

However, despite the predictions, and despite NLC’s concerns pointing to slow growth and lots yet to accomplish before returning to normalcy, a more positive return-to-normal picture also seems to be emerging. 

Badger wrote in an April 19, 2021 New York Time’s piece that “migration patterns during the pandemic have looked a lot like migration patterns before it. In general, areas that were already attracting new residents kept attracting them. Those that were losing migrants lost more.” Research from Johns Hopkins University and the University of Utah noted that “in theory” dense cities would obviously have more face-to-face interactions and thus more likely become hotspots for COVID infections. However, “dense areas may have better access to health care facilities and greater implementation of social distancing policies and practices.”  Plus, “counties with higher densities have significantly lower virus-related mortality rates than do counties with lower densities, possibly due to superior health care systems.” So, in effect, while the death-knells of big city life may have seemed alluring to some, they are basically false.

Cities with High-Performing Growth
So, which cities are experiencing the most significant comebacks? The Best Performing Cities 2021 report, by the Milken Institute, is perhaps a good place to start for a portrait of some of the cities in the U.S. identified as high growth metros for jobs (mostly in high tech), good wages, affordable housing, and strong broadband access. The Institute scored economic performance of approximately 400 U.S. metropolitan statistical areas (MSAs) and came up with and index consisting of five tiers of cities with similar scores. 

Tier 1 (ranked 1 through 13) was divided into large and small MSAs. The top five Tier 1 large MSAs (more than 250,000 residents) are Provo-Orem, UT; Palm Bay-Melbourne-Titusville, FL; Austin-Round Rock-Georgetown, TX; Salt Lake City, UT; and Raleigh-Cary, NC. The top five Tier 1 small MSAs (more than 60,000 residents) are Idaho Falls, ID; Logan, UT; The Villages, FL; St. George, UT; and Daphne-Fairhope-Foley, AL. The top five Tier 2 MSAs (ranked 14 through 49) are Jonesboro, AR; Hilton Head Island, SC; Lake Havasu City, AZ; Auburn, AL, and Mount Vernon, WA. The top five Tier 3 (ranked 50 through 119) MSAs are Greenville, NC; Midland, TX; Rochester, MN; Grand Junction, CO; and Cleveland, TN.  The top five Tier 4 MSAs (ranked 120 through 169) are Dubuque, IA; Cumberland, MD-WV; Wichita Falls, TX; Harford, CA; and Kokomo, IN. The top five Tier 5 MSAs (ranked 170- through 200) are Houma, LA; Grand Forks, ND-MN; Weirton, WV-OH; Monroe, MI; and Goldsboro, NC. 

According to the Institute, “the top performing metro areas leverage their assets to remain competitive places for businesses to operate and workers to live, regardless of the nation’s overall economic trajectory.”

Taking Provo, UT as only one example, it “ranked first in both one- and five-year job growth while also ranking highly in high-tech GDP concentration and the number of high-tech industries.” The area also offers “significantly lower costs than Silicon Valley” and “has attracted such tech giants as Qualtrics, Vivint, and SmartCitizen.” 

Tiers Explained
Many of the top performers in Tier 1 came from the Intermountain West in cities where wage and job growth were “far above the national median.” In Tier 2 cities, wage and job growth performance also stood out, “though households in some cities were more likely to face housing cost burdens and a mixed outlook in the local job market over the past year.”  Tier 3 showed “an extremely diverse group of characteristics,” with large metros like New York City, Los Angeles, Houston, and Washington, D.C. showing “enough variation in outcomes between high-income and low-income areas that their overall performance on the index did not stand out in either direction.” Tier 4 revealed “a mix of characteristics,” with only a few cities ranking in the top half on job or wage growth along with low overall rates on broadband access.  Tier 5 cities, which were typically heavy in manufacturing, like Detroit and Cleveland, had low levels of job and wage growth and limited high-tech enterprises. 

Other Rankings
There are many other reports and analyses of best-performing cities. One that seems to have gotten a lot of press recently was conducted by WalletHub, titled “Best Cities for Jobs,” published on January 5, 2021. Here the top five among a raking of 182 U.S. cities (including the 150 most populated) are South Burlington, VT; Columbia, MD; Virginia Beach, VA; Salt Lake City, UT; and Boise, ID. WalletHub looked at two key dimensions – job market and socio-economics – and then “assigned a heavier weight to the former, considering the fact that factors in that category most heavily influence a job seeker’s decision in terms of relocation for employment.” Unlike the Milken Institute,  WalletHub’s sampling considered only the city proper in each case, not MSAs. 

Another article in this vein was published by Indeed on March 8, 2021, titled “Best Cities for Jobs Around the Country.” The top five, according to Indeed, based on Bureau of Labor Statistics employment data, are San Jose, CA; San Francisco, CA; San Diego, CA; Minneapolis, MN; and Sacramento, CA.

AdvisorSmith also published a “Cities with the Best Job Growth (2021)” on May 27, 2021. They looked at the job change percentages in metro areas between March 2019 and March 2021 and ranked the top 50 cities for growth and the 50 cities with most job losses. All 50 states and Washington, D.C. were also ranked. The top five cities for growth, according to AdvisorSmith, are Ocean City, NJ; St. George, UT; Idaho Falls, ID; Coeur d’Aline, ID; and Lakeland, FL.  The five cities that suffered the most job losses are Kahului, HI; Lake Charles, LA;  Odessa TX;  Midland, TX; and Honolulu, HI.  The five top states for job growth are Idaho, Utah, Montana, South Dakota, and Arizona.

More to come on cities and their connection to the future of work in future Workforce Monitor posts.

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