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Where's the Talent: Jobs Outlook in the Fastest Growing U.S. Cities

Unlike in past expansions, growth may spread across more cities as more people have the freedom to work remotely from their preferred locations.

Q2 2021
The latest data from BEA indicate that employers are paying more than ever for talent, as the compensation of employees has more than recovered to $11.7 trillion in Q4/2020, above the previous peak seen at the start of 2020. Now, more than ever, talent is playing a critical role in propelling the U.S. economy and, importantly, reshaping how cities grow and prosper.

While we do expect the labor market recovery to be more protracted than GDP growth — with U.S. employment not returning to its pre-recession level until the end of 2022 — some cities will outperform others due to their exposure to fast-growing industries and reliance on skilled workers who command high incomes. Nevertheless, a number of smaller cities have grown rapidly as well and will continue to do so despite a lack of concentration of well-paid, highly educated tech workers. This article summarizes the key jobs likely to be demanded in some of the fastest-growing cities in the U.S.

First, we have selected a group of fast-growing cities based on projections by Oxford Economics that includes Boston, Raleigh, and Boise. Additionally, we highlight the outlook in Detroit, a city that is facing a particularly steep recovery. Each city’s forecast provides a unique view of growth drivers, which can be applied strategically by understanding the industrial drivers and the talent that supports its growth. Within each city forecast, we identify the top contributing industry for jobs at the MSA (city) level. This allows us to highlight some of the most in-demand skilled occupations using industry staffing patterns. Lastly, we look at those occupations and their links to college majors that serve as the future talent supply. With this approach, we can highlight how postsecondary institutions in a city help to supply the right talent to support growth but recognize that there is no consistent formula for growth. For state and local stakeholders, knowing the occupation outlook helps to strategically organize services to provide workforce support to key industries in their local economies. Now, more than ever, talent is playing a critical role in propelling the U.S. economy and, importantly, reshaping how cities grow and prosper. 

A Renowned Center of Life Sciences R&D
Boston has one of the leading life sciences sectors, which is fed by its legacy of revered universities and top-notch hospitals. After growing by 51 percent over the previous five years, Boston’s science R&D sector added 3,750 jobs (5 percent) in 2020. Its large institutions along with a number of liberal arts colleges not only fortify its science and tech sectors, but they fuel a diverse economic base.
  • Industry with the largest growth driver:
    Research and development in the physical, engineering, and life sciences
  • Occupation demand:
    Within the R&D life sciences sector, the largest occupations or employed jobs include medical scientists; biochemists and biophysicists; and chemists — most of which require a graduate degree in the biological and biomedical sciences field.
  • Talent pipeline:
    Universities in the Boston region supply over 2,000 graduates annually from their biological and biomedical sciences programs. Notable universities here include Boston University, Harvard, MIT, Northeastern, Tufts, Massachusetts College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences, and a number of smaller science and liberal arts colleges.
  • Outlook:
    Boston’s knowledge-based economy should continue to outperform the U.S. Our forecast shows Boston’s GDP growth of 12 percent from 2019 to 2025 outpacing the U.S. growth rate of 10.5 percent.
  • Comparable cities with a life sciences sector:
    San Diego, Philadelphia, suburban Maryland
For state and local stakeholders, knowing the occupation outlook helps to strategically organize services to provide workforce support to key industries in their local economies.  A Rapidly Growing Tech Hub
Raleigh’s economy is recognized for its “research triangle” anchored by its three large universities that have fueled a strong tech base in the area. Moreover, its relatively low business and living costs have attracted a number of businesses and residents seeking a low-cost alternative to the coastal cities. After growing by 33 percent over the prior five years, Raleigh’s professional and technical services sector added 1,700 jobs (+2.6 percent) in 2020. Tech firms with a large presence in Raleigh include IBM, SAS, Cisco Systems, and soon Apple, which recently announced that it would build its newest R&D campus in the “research triangle.”
  • Industries with the largest growth driver:
    Computer and peripheral equipment manufacturing; computer systems design and related services
  • Occupation demand:
    Within the high-tech manufacturing and computer systems design sectors, the largest occupations include computer systems analysts; software developers; and computer programmers, which typically require a degree in computer science or computer engineering.
  • Talent pipeline:
    Universities in the “research triangle” region supply more than 3,000 graduates annually from their computer science and computer engineering programs. Notable universities near Raleigh include Duke University, the University of North Carolina, and North Carolina State.
  • Outlook:
    The metro’s tech-fueled growth is expected to continue. Raleigh is expected to see net 2019–2025 GDP growth of 16.1 percent, which ranks in the top 10 of 382 metros and far exceeds the U.S. growth rate of 10.5 percent.
  • Comparable cities with a high-tech sector:
    San Francisco, Austin, Seattle
Overshadowed But Not Outshined
Located in the southwest corner of Idaho, Boise benefits from its proximity to the many Pacific Coast tech hubs as well as its access to abundant natural resources, which along with its low cost of living have drawn many new residents over the last 10 years. Its 2014–2019 population growth of 13 percent ranks 10th of 382 metros. Like a number of smaller Mountain region metros, population growth has driven economic growth, instead of the reverse. Like many fast-growing metros, it is home to a number of universities; however, these do not generate the same postsecondary STEM degrees that tech hubs’ universities have. Although Boise provides a different template, its lack of STEM degrees has not impeded its growth; GDP growth in Boise averaged 5.3 percent per year from 2014 to 2019, well ahead of the national average of 2.6 percent.
  • Industries with the largest growth driver:
    Indeed, the fastest-growing sector has been construction, which saw job growth of 58 percent from 2014 to 2019 along with another 8 percent in 2020.
  • Occupation demand:
    Within the construction sector, the principal occupations include carpenters, electricians, and plumbers — nearly all of which do not require a college degree.
  • Talent pipeline:
    Nevertheless, the abundance of colleges in the area — Boise State University, Brigham Young University Idaho, University of Idaho Boise, and College of Idaho — feed the professional services sectors, including a large cohort of business, management, and marketing graduates, averaging 2,800 annually.
  • Outlook:
    Looking ahead to 2025, we expect GDP growth of 15.2 percent over 2019, which is considerably higher than the 10.5 percent national growth rate. Moreover, the growth is expected to be spread across every sector, with the information, finance, and professional services sectors seeing some of the healthiest rates.
  • Comparable cities with rapidly growing populations:
    Provo, Utah; Bend, Ore.; Bellingham, Wash.
A number of smaller cities have shown that growth can occur without a major tech university feeding its workforce.  On the Road to Recovery
Synonymous with auto manufacturing, Detroit was just starting to get its groove back with a healthy rate of job and development growth when the COVID-19 pandemic hit. This caused many manufacturing facilities to shutter, which cut durable manufacturing employment in half. Despite a plunge in car sales during the pandemic, demand for new vehicles should resume with the prospect of additional stimulus checks and the pent-up demand for travel. Moreover, Ford and GM announced they would invest billions in electric vehicle technology over the next few years.
  • Industry with the largest growth driver:
    Detroit-Dearborn’s motor vehicle manufacturing sector is a popular destination for mechanical engineers supplied by its large universities.
  • Occupation demand:
    Within the motor vehicle manufacturing sector, the largest occupations include highly trained industrial engineers and mechanical engineers, which require related degrees in engineering, as well as many blue-collar production jobs.
  • Talent pipeline:
    Its large state universities, such as University of Michigan, Michigan State University, and Wayne State University draw a talented pool of students from around the globe. As a result, Detroit area universities are able to produce over 5,000 graduates annually with degrees in engineering and provide a steady pipeline of talent to the local auto manufacturing sector.
  • Outlook:
    Detroit’s expected GDP growth of 6.5 percent from 2019 to 2025 trails the U.S. expected growth of 10.5 percent. Its growth, however, is expected to be spread more evenly across manufacturing, finance, information, and professional services. In short, urban enthusiasts’ efforts to re-build Detroit after the housing bust were only partially thwarted by the pandemic.
  • Comparable cities on the road to recovery:
    Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Greensboro, N.C.
Spreading the Growth
Although the knowledge economy spurred significant job and GDP growth over the last expansion, a number of other smaller cities showed that growth can occur without a major tech university feeding its workforce. The major tech hubs should still see the highest growth over the next five years. However, as more have the freedom to work remotely from their preferred location, outdoor, cultural, and other amenities should spread the growth across more cities than experienced in past expansions.

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