Workers without college degrees leave major metros for greater opportunity; even King County sees exodus.

The New York Times reports that “workers without college degrees are fleeing big cities.” 

Last month the Census Bureau confirmed a confounding dynamic taking hold across the American landscape: Superstar cities, the nation’s economic powerhouses, hotbeds of opportunity at the cutting edge of technological progress, are losing people to other parts of the country.

That represents a change. As we’ve written, the story of the last decade or so has been the migration to metros. The urban-rural divide has been seen as a one-way ratchet, with jobs and workers leaving the rural counties for big cities.

The NYT leads with a close-to-home example.

For the first time in at least a decade, 4,868 more people left King County, Wash. — Amazon’s home — than arrived from elsewhere in the country.

And they point out,

This growing flow of people out of the hotbeds of innovation and economic activity underscores how lopsided the distribution of opportunity has become…

Places like Cupertino and Mountain View in Santa Clara County may still offer the best, most highly paid opportunities for the highly educated — lawyers and programmers seeking jobs at Apple or Google. The median family in that county makes $122,700 a year. In King County it is $105,512, way above the national median of $76,000.

The problem is that workers without a four-year college degree don’t earn anywhere near that much.

The story, by Eduardo Porter and Guilbert Gates, points out that the trend represents a reversal.

Moving to opportunity is not what it once was.

Forty or 50 years ago, someone with no more than a high school diploma had much better job opportunities in a big city than in a small town. Not only did those at the bottom of the wage scale — janitors, cashiers at 7-Eleven — make more money in dense urban centers, but these places also offered data entry, bookkeeping and other jobs that paid middle-class wages while requiring little or no college experience.

But as my colleagues Emily Badger and Quoctrung Bui noted recently in an article citing the work of the M.I.T. economist David Autor, big cities have lost their luster for workers without four-year college degrees.

Housing affordability plays a large part.

Research by Peter Ganong from the University of Chicago and Daniel Shoag of Harvard suggests that housing costs are a principal driver of the change in migration decisions: As the highly educated have flocked to superstar cities, they have pushed housing prices way beyond the reach of people earning less.

It’s a well-researched article, with good graphics and data. And it  confirms other research we’ve followed.  Last week, we cited a study that named Spokane as the 9th best city for “opportunity careers,” good jobs available to people without a bachelor’s degree. Commenting on the study, Seattle Times business columnist Jon Talton wrote,

The slogan might be: Go Midwest, young people without degrees. Toledo, Ohio, leads the top 10 best cities for such “opportunity jobs.” Also on the list: Des Moines, Iowa; St. Louis; Cedar Rapids, Iowa; Cleveland; and Kansas City. It’s not exclusive to the heartland. Anchorage is No. 2. Birmingham, Alabama, and Lexington, Kentucky, also are among the leaders.

Metros with the least such jobs are Washington, D.C., New York City, Los Angeles, Miami and Silicon Valley.

Relocating to expand opportunity was once common. And it may become more so again. Increasing opportunities for current and future residents of our state, though, continues to make good public policy sense. Ultimately, that begins by increasing postsecondary training and education.