Top

“The Future of the Great Lakes Region”: New Urban Institute Report Explores How Decline in Manufacturing Industry is Shaping the Industrial Midwest

By Torey Hollingsworth, GOPC Manager of Research and PolicyA new report from the Metropolitan Housing and Communities Policy Center at the Urban Instituteexamines economic and demographic changes over the past century in the Great Lakes region (Ohio, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, and Wisconsin) and projects trends into the middle of the twenty-first century.  The report finds that that region’s reliance on manufacturing has created unique challenges that set it on a different path than the rest of the country. Importantly, the challenges in the manufacturing sector have deepened dramatically in the last fifteen years. Although there were major shocks to the manufacturing sector in the 1970s, employment in the sector recovered and eventually grew to its highest level in 1999. At that point, the sector experienced an even greater shock from automation and foreign competition, causing it to shed 35 percent of jobs in the region from 2000 to 2010.

This dramatic loss in employment had a number of important ripple effects. Manufacturing jobs pay an average of $78,000, dramatically higher than average wages in the region. As a result of the loss of manufacturing employment, the Great Lakes states saw a decline in higher wage jobs while other regions experienced growth. Meanwhile, other regions saw net job growth of 17.5 percent from 2000 to 2015, while the Great Lakes states saw only 3.7 percent growth in that time period. Notably, low-wage jobs accounted for all of this job growth in the Great Lakes region.

Toledo-glassmaking
Toledo-glassmaking

Glass-maker in Toledo, Ohio

Demographic trends appear to mirror recent economic decline. The Great Lakes region has continued to grow population slowly, but the authors estimate that the region will stop growing by 2030 as baby boomers age and out-migration continues. Between 50,000 and 105,000 people left the region every year between 2007 and 2014, but out-migration appeared to slow after the end of the Great Recession. The timing of this trend is particularly impactful because it happened just as the millennial generation came of age and began entering the workforce. As a result, the Great Lakes region lost younger workers as other regions saw growth in this cohort.

The region’s workforce is aging, particularly in the manufacturing sector: people ages 45 to 64 account for 46 percent of manufacturing employees, up from 36 percent in 2000. The number of people in the workforce is anticipated to remain flat as baby boomers retire and young people leave the region. The authors predict that this could result in a tight labor market in the 2020s, potentially pushing wages higher if the workforce has skills appropriate for available jobs.

Despite population loss – or perhaps because of it – the region is becoming more racially diverse. The non-Hispanic white population has declined back to 1990 levels, while the African-American population is 17 percent higher than in 1990. The Hispanic population has seen the greatest growth – surging from 800,000 in 1990 to 3.1 million in 2015. Correspondingly, the foreign-born population in the Great Lakes region has grown, but not to the same extent as other parts of the country. The authors argue that efforts to invest in communities of color and mitigate long-standing racial disparities are crucial to the long-term health of the region. People of color are the only growing population cohort in the region, and will make up an increasingly large portion of the local labor force.

While many of the findings of the report are quite sobering, the authors suggest that wise investments in human capital, civic capacity, and community revitalization can help reverse decline by encouraging young people to stay and by sharing prosperity more broadly among residents. Recommended investments include sustainable financial support for upgrading and maintaining water and energy infrastructure to bolster economic development. Critically, these investments cannot be focused only on the largest metropolitan areas in the region. The Great Lakes states’ deep challenges are present – sometimes to an even greater extent - in small cities and rural areas as well, and efforts to restore the region’s prosperity must be fully inclusive of these communities.