Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Promoting Rust Belt Out-Migration

Piggy-backing on yesterday's post about labor shortages and the geographic mobility of talent, Americans are not moving to where the jobs are located:

Unemployment rates have been as low as 2 percent this year in places like Montana, and nearly as low in neighboring states. Economists cite such factors as an aging work force and booming tourism economies for the tight labor market.

In North Dakota, Gov. John Hoeven scheduled a conference in October to talk about ways to attract workers.

"We have produced more than 25,000 new jobs since 2000, nearly 8,000 last year alone," Hoeven said in a statement announcing the conference. "Our challenge now is filling those jobs."

For places like Montana, it has been a steady climb in the nearly two decades since the timber and mining industry recession. The state approached double-digit unemployment levels in the 1980s and began the slow crawl back in the early 1990s.

"This is actually the biggest economic story of our time, and we don't quite grasp it because it is 15 years in the making," said economist Larry Swanson, director of the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West at the University of Montana.

Meanwhile, more and more Rust Belt residents are out of work and staring a gloomy recession in the face. This bit of news has me wondering: What's the tipping point for another Rust Belt exodus? The people who would most benefit from migrating west are typically the least educated members of the local workforce, thus the most unlikely to leave. Transforming the Stuck into the Mobile (to use Richard Florida's clever dichotomy) is quite a feat.

Issues of brain drain aside, helping the unemployed find work wherever it may be would seem to be the right thing to do. Some may be unable or unwilling to move, but I suspect that the knowledge problem for migration is the main impediment. A community diaspora network could be instrumental in enhancing the geographic mobility of labor. And if I'm the governor of North Dakota, I know what to do in order to find these workers. Governor Hoeven, feel free to send me an e-mail. I'm always in the market for a good consulting gig.

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