Posted by: Josh Lehner | April 15, 2016

Suburbs Have Jobs Too

There is no question that America’s largest metropolitan areas are outperforming the rest of the nation. Job growth over the past decade is significantly stronger than small and medium sized metros and rural areas. Furthermore, much has been made of the so-called urban renaissance. Population growth has returned to cities’ urban cores, as well as the bulk of the job gains. There is a very lively debate among demographers, economists, planners, urbanists and the like over why and how these shifts are occurring. The research is fascinating and very important for policy and future economic growth. However, the simple fact that most people do not live in the urban core is lost among many of these debates. Suburbs are people too. Yesterday in Part One we examined population growth in Portland. Today in Part Two we take a look at job growth.

As with population, the relative pattern of job growth in the region is different today than during the housing boom. It is true that Multnomah County is not adding jobs at an appreciable faster rate than the suburban counties combined. However, Multnomah is growing faster today than last decade while the suburban counties are growing slower. Nationally, job growth in the city centers is surging in recent years as well, based on a City Observatory report last year.


Multnomah County is the region’s boardroom, the opposite of a bedroom community. Many more workers commute into the city to work. As such, thr largest increases in jobs are in Multnomah County. This is true even as a number of Portlanders themselves are reverse commuting, particularly to Washington County. In a fascinating presentation, Employment Department economist Christian Kaylor details job and income trends for individuals living in the City of Portland, regardless of where they work. Christian also covers a lot of ground along the demographics of who is moving to or living in Portland proper. (The presentation made it to Reddit, which, is pretty cool! Do watch it if you have the time. About 45 mins.)


In percentage terms Clark County and Washington County have seen the largest job gains. Both are significantly above their pre-Great Recession employment levels. Clark County has been particularly strong relative to the conventional wisdom which tends to focus more on the Oregon portion of the metro area. I am guilty of this as well, of course. For comparison purposes, the U.S. is 3.6% above pre-recession levels and Oregon is 4.2% above. The Portland MSA has outperformed both the nation and the state, as have most other large metropolitan areas.


The rest of the metro area has seen somewhat mixed results over the past decade. Yamhill’s growth has been strong. Clackamas experienced hardly any job growth for a number of years but recently joined the recovery. Columbia and Skamania remain considerably below their housing boom era peaks today. Within the metro area, I think the same story of housing and government applies to the more rural or bedroom communities, just as it does to the state’s second tier metros and rural economies.

As always, the differences between levels (actual numbers) and growth rates (how fast things change) is a big deal. Understanding both is important. The point of these two posts is the highlight how the narrative can and does change depending upon which aspect you focus on.

Data note: I completely agree with City Observatory’s Joe Cortright that county level data is not the best way to examine urban cores and suburbs. Many counties include urban and rural portions. However in the Portland MSA it works pretty well. The City of Portland is roughly 80% of Multnomah County’s population and a minisucle portion of Clackamas and Washington counties’. According to Christian’s presentation, the City of Portland is more like 88% of Multnomah County’s jobs.

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