If you don’t have a bachelor’s degree, Seattle is probably not the best metropolitan area for you.
This high-wage, high-quality economy is heavy on technology and other advanced industries, requiring workers with more education and skills than the average American metro. Rents are high. Buying a house is out of the question for many.
Seattle is a coveted location, too, with many people bidding for the best positions. I wonder how many Ph.D.s in the liberal arts are working multiple fast-food jobs to enjoy the Space Needle, Mount Rainier and Puget Sound.
Some of this is not new. When I was starting out my career at a small-but-feisty newspaper in San Diego County in the 1980s, even with a college degree I was paid in “sunshine dollars.” Unfortunately, the supermarket didn’t accept this currency. I had an apartment a block-and-a-half from the beach. But I could never buy a house. It took successive moves across the country to reach big newspapers and better money.
(When the big San Diego paper offered me the business-editor job in 1998, it was still paying poorly).
What’s different today is the hollowing out of middle-wage jobs and the startling rise of low-wage positions, often with no way up.
My calling is in a desperate condition as newspapers close and the gloomiest predictions hover over our future. That’s another change: Entire industries have been made obsolete, sent offshore or been “disrupted.” These trends can coexist with a 50-year-old low in unemployment goosed by Keynesian stimulus.
Still, some Goldilocks metros exist, where people without bachelor’s degrees can find work and the lower cost of living makes the wages go further.
This is the conclusion of a new report from Kyle Fee and Lisa Nelson of the Cleveland Fed and Keith Wardrip of the Philadelphia Fed. They seek to identify the best places for “opportunity jobs” — “employment accessible to workers without a bachelor’s degree and typically paying above the national annual median wage ($37,690), adjusted for regional differences in consumer prices.”
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.
Among the opportunity jobs with the largest growth nationally are plumbers, pipefitters and steamfitters; registered nurses (not all require a baccalaureate degree); heating, air conditioning, and refrigeration mechanics and installers; and construction workers and supervisors.
In examining Seattle-Tacoma-Bellevue, the study found that only about a quarter of positions were opportunity jobs. Higher-wage jobs requiring a bachelor’s degree were 33% of the mix, while more than 42% were low wage.
The metro ranked 62 out of 121 in the opportunity employment share.
Portland scored better, at 27, mainly because it had fewer high-wage college degree-required jobs.
On the other hand, Spokane-Spokane Valley clocked in as the nation’s ninth best. Even though more than 49% of its workforce was low wage, nearly 30% was opportunity employment.
The national average of opportunity jobs is 21.6%.
This report has its limitations. For example, fewer people have been moving to get better jobs in recent years. And the labor force of, say, Toledo could absorb only so many newcomers before the Goldilocks effect evaporated.
The situation is also more complex in metro Seattle than it appears in the rankings.
For example, construction employment in Seattle-Tacoma-Bellevue has been hovering at record levels. Last year, construction occupations had an average annual wage of $64,890, according to the U.S. Labor Department. The earnings are better than the national average and, apparently, enough to keep workers coming, even with a much higher cost of living.
Also, Seattle is unusual among star coastal metros in having substantial sectors (aircraft assembly, ports and maritime, transportation and logistics) that can provide work for those without bachelor’s degrees. This helps to explain why our share of opportunity jobs is higher than the national average.
The region still offers some relatively affordable areas compared with the Bay Area, New York, Washington or Boston, too.
Still, an enduring mystery is how the most expensive places maintain their places at the top of the national and world economy.
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Hardly a day goes by that urban scholars and others on social media and elsewhere don’t scold Silicon Valley, San Francisco or even Seattle for scandalous unaffordability.
Indeed, it’s crazy to anyone who remembers the post-World War II decades when middle-wage jobs were plentiful, and wages were growing for almost everyone. In 1960, a “superstar city” was one with large numbers of factories and good union jobs, coexisting with corporate headquarters and banks.
Back then, Detroit was not synonymous with urban collapse and Seattle was a heavily blue-collar city. This was even true of San Francisco. San Jose was in the middle of an agricultural empire, the lyrical Valley of Heart’s Delight. Hewlett-Packard, Stanford University and a few other precursors of Silicon Valley were nearby, but an average worker could afford a house.
And yet… And yet, today the apocalypse has yet to arrive. A moral reckoning where the lower-paid masses grab their pitchforks and head bloody-minded for the mansions on the Peninsula or the Valley’s shiny tech headquarters? An economic rebalancing where companies and talented workers flee to less expensive places such as Toledo?
Nope. That’s not how the world works now. Many people get by, struggling more than their parents did in the same circumstances, but still putting one foot in front of the other. Others fall through cracks that were wider than 40 years ago.
So moving for opportunity is still an option — a good one in many cases.
Whether diminished ladders up and rising inequality signal “late-stage capitalism” that must inevitably be replaced by some form of social democracy — that’s a question that will take many elections to sort out.