Education and the Remaking of the Rust Belt

Image of University Circle in Cleveland.  This is the neighborhood where Case Western Reserve University, the Cleveland Clinic, and numerous other educational and cultural institutions come together to serve Greater Cleveland.  Source:

A couple of my contrarian Rust Belt blogging colleagues are at it again.

In a new report released by the Center for Population Dynamics at Cleveland State University, Richey Piiparinen and Jim Russell, along with Charlie Post, demonstrate that Rust Belt cities are transforming their economies while transforming their labor forces.  In doing so they’re creating some separation between them and less well educated Sun Belt metros, and possibly developing true and enduring economic sustainability for the first time in generations.

Piiparinen et al examined the educational attainment of the 40 largest metro areas in the U.S., using 2012 American Community Survey three-year estimates data.  Starting by looking simply at those over 18 with a bachelor’s degree or more, they found that Pittsburgh and Cleveland, the two metros under close examination in the study, ranked 23rd and 31st respectively.  Not especially great, and likely conforming with most people’s general impressions about manufacturing-era Pittsburgh and Cleveland.  
But when looking at the number of persons with a bachelor’s degree or more in the 25-34 age cohort, a group that provides an indication of a region’s future economic makeup, some interesting shifts emerge.  Greater Pittsburgh vaults from 23rd to 7th in the rankings, surpassing Philadelphia and Chicago and putting it in the same league as the known knowledge centers of the nation — Boston, Washington, San Francisco and New York.  Cleveland moved up six spots to 25th in the rankings.
But as the authors say in the New Geography summary:

An additional method of examining a region’s skill level is to look at the educational attainment within the labor force, as opposed to population. The rationale for doing so is simple. Regions with proportionally large student populations, like Columbus, Ohio, can have exaggerated talent pools, at least in terms of economic productivity. That is, a college student may live in a region to consume knowledge but not necessarily be employed to produce output.

 And when that happens, Pittsburgh climbs to fourth in the rankings, and Cleveland rises to 21st.  Columbus, OH drops from 13th to 27th, as the influence of Ohio State University is factored out of its labor force.

Lastly, they examined the number of people in the labor force age 25-34 with a graduate or professional degree, and Pittsburgh ranked third, behind just Washington and Boston, and Cleveland ranked eighth.  Who would’ve thought?

It brings to mind the typology of metro areas that the Brookings Institution did a few years ago.  Back then, Brookings said Pittsburgh and Cleveland were “Skilled Anchors” — metros with low growth rates, low levels of diversity, but high levels of educational attainment.

These metros have been steadily changing over time, and we don’t fully appreciate the extent of their transformation.

In fact, I did a simple analysis to determine how the Rust Belt metros in the report stacked up when considering their economic restructuring.  I started with a couple of assumptions to guide the analysis.  First, I looked at the educational attainment data by population as functions of talent production — a measure of the number and quality of educational institutions within a given metro area.  I looked at educational attainment data by labor force as functions of talent attraction — the ability of a metro area to to bring, in this case, young educated people into the workforce.  This may be only partly true, but it’s a start.

Second, I put the rankings for the eleven Rust Belt metros in the study into a table.  I averaged out the ranking scores for the two population categories and the two labor force categories, and that gave me a sense of an overall ranking in terms of overall ranking of talent production and attraction.  Here’s how that looks (and you can click to make it bigger):

The last thing I did was to regard and evaluate each metro in one of three tiers of production and attraction — high, modest and low for each category.

If the numbers hold, then some interesting trends become evident.  First, there are a few metros that appear to produce talent at higher rates than the attraction evident in their labor force.  Minneapolis/St. Paul and Columbus certainly fit that bill, and that’s due largely to the presence of major state universities in their midst.  Cincinnati and Milwaukee are also here.  Second, there are a few metros that are balanced in terms of production and attraction — Chicago, St. Louis and Kansas City.  Lastly, there are a few that appear to attract more than they’re producing — Pittsburgh and Cleveland, as the main study suggests, but also Detroit and Indianapolis.

But when you consider the tiers of production and attraction in terms of high (a ranking of 1-13), modest (14-27) or low (28-40), I think what emerges is a sense of the progress of metro area economic restructuring, via talent.  Because when you do, and you establish attraction over production as the priority, this table comes together:


Here’s how I’d interpret this.  Of Rust Belt metros, Chicago leads in terms of the production and attraction of talent, thanks to its premier institutions and solid (if slow growing) economy.  Pittsburgh is not far behind, and in fact is likely gaining on Chicago.  Several metros demonstrate modest talent attraction, led by their universities (the Twin Cities, Columbus) or economies that bring in a fair number of educated people (Kansas City, Indianapolis, Milwaukee).  Detroit as well as Cleveland appear to be attracting talent at rates far higher than their production.  Cincinnati produces modestly, but attracts few.

When I started this post, I was prepared to drive home the point that Detroit’s economic restructuring lagged that of Pittsburgh and Cleveland because it lacked premier educational institutions like Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Pittsburgh, or Case Western Reserve University and the Cleveland Clinic, in Pittsburgh and Cleveland respectively.  In fact, I was going to use this as the foundation to build a case for a private, STEM-focused research university in the Motor City to facilitate economic restructuring.  A dream, to be sure, but maybe one worth pursuing.

But this data suggests that metro Detroit is indeed restructuring its economy along the lines of talent, without the benefit of a major institution in its midst (it’s debatable whether you include the University of Michigan in or out of the Detroit area).   Metro Detroit has decent numbers of well-educated workers in its labor force, and what looks like a rather surprising ability to attract them.

One thought on “Education and the Remaking of the Rust Belt

  1. “But this data suggests that metro Detroit is indeed restructuring its economy along the lines of talent, without the benefit of a major institution in its midst (it's debatable whether you include the University of Michigan in or out of the Detroit area)”

    Maybe Wayne State could increasingly take on this role?


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