Wednesday, March 28, 2018

New Census Bureau Population Estimates: What it says and why it matters?

By Katie Thomas, Project Associate

The U.S. Census Bureau just released its 2017 population estimates for counties and Metro/Micro Areas. The new data release includes population estimates and the components of population change. Although details related to age, sex, race, and Hispanic origin won’t be released until June, there are some interesting findings related to the growth and the factors that influence that growth – natural change (births minus deaths), domestic migration, and international migration.

Without further ado, here are a few key findings.

  • The largest-gaining metropolitan areas continue to be primarily located in the South. Florida, Georgia, and Texas accounted for six of the top ten metros with the largest gains.
  • The Dallas-Fort Worth-Arlington, TX metro area had the largest gain with an over-the-year net increase of nearly 150,000 residents.
  • In contrast, the many of the fastest growing metropolitan areas are located in the Midwest and West and includes states such as Utah, Colorado, Oregon, and Idaho.
  • The fastest-growing metro, St. George, UT, saw its population increase by four percent between 2016 and 2017.
  • Net domestic migration is driving population growth in the fastest growing counties and metros.
  • Roughly 43 percent of counties (1,342 counties) lost population between 2016 and 2017. Additionally, 38.2 percent of counties (1,200) had a natural decrease where the number of deaths in the county was greater than the number of people born.
  • Approximately 53 percent of counties (1,661) showed positive net migration between 2016 and 2017. The remaining counties had more people moving out than moving in.

The Census Bureau also recently released its 2017 National Population Projections. The new projections estimate that by 2030, all baby boomers will be older than 65 and that one in every five residents will be retirement age. By 2035, there will be more people over the age of 65 than people under the age of 18 for the first time in U.S. history. The number of people over the age of 85 is also projected to double by 2035. At the same time, the population will continue to diversify. The population of people that are two or more races is projected to grow the fastest while the non-Hispanic White population is projected to shrink in the coming decades.

Taken together, the population estimates and the projections raise many important questions that communities should be asking themselves. What are the communities that are experiencing healthy growth doing that we are not? What qualities and traits do they have that we are missing? If your community is experiencing negative net migration, why are more people moving out than moving in? Where are they moving to and why? Does your community have enough health care workers and a sufficient pipeline to meet the increased demand for health care services tied to aging ailments? Can residents in your community age in-place? Will there be enough quality housing and transportation options available for older residents? Do you have an open and welcoming community where residents from all background have the same opportunities to thrive? The list goes on, but these are just a few questions that immediately come to mind.

The new data also, again, further underscores the importance that migration – both international and domestic – has on a community. The current trajectory for shrinking counties is not a positive story. Negative net migration ultimately has significant implications on a community’s long-term economic growth, prosperity, and well-being. Communities that continue to shrink will need to take impactful and meaningful actions in order to stabilize and grow their populations and to change their paths onto more prosperous ones.

As a data lover, I always enjoy looking at new data when they’re released and seeing what they say. The data is a chance for all counties and metro/micro areas to benchmark where they are and see where they stand compared to their peer communities. It can be a call to action or just a reminder of the importance of data and measuring one’s progress. If you don’t like where you’re at then change your story and change your path. Status quo simply will not suffice. If nothing changes then it won’t be due to the lack of available data, it will be due to the lack of action and a failure to translate data into meaningful change.

And as always, if you don’t have the tools or resources to make that happen, give us a call. Economic and community development is a team sport; maybe it’s time to bring some new players to the table.

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Skill Incubators and Accelerators: A Panacea for The Automation Age?

By Evan Robertson, Senior Project Associate

Automation is an uncomfortable topic for this economic development professional. It is our responsibility after all to ensure that the local business community is able to compete in the global marketplace. In today’s digital age, this increasingly means creating an environment that fosters innovation and technology adoption. Strategies and interventions can take a variety of forms whether through organizations such as Quad Cities Manufacturing Innovation Hub that diffuse best practices through industry or financially incentivizing technology investment through tax incentives and exemptions. Staying ahead of the innovation curve is vital because declining competitiveness can, over the near- and long-term, lead to ruinous consequences. One need only look as far as the numerous communities in the southeast that were, and still are, devastated by the globalization of the textile industry.

But technology has always had a labor displacing property. When’s the last time you spoke with a telephone switch board operator? Yet Luddites will profess that this time is different. And in some respects their fears are valid. Automation, robotics, and artificial intelligence are forging new paths in areas where technology has long under-performed humanity: speech recognition, cognition, vision, and mixed initiative interactions among others. Put simply, these technologies are entering areas once previously thought to be outside the realm of possibility (excl. sci-fi geeks). The end result is that the bulk of our current work activities may become redundant as these technologies further advance. McKinsey Global Institute recently found that about half of all work activities globally have the potential to be automated using current technologies. The Institute is quick to indicate that the realized impact will likely be lower given social, economic, and technical constraints. Over time these constraints will vanish as business and social norms restructure – allowing for more pervasive adoption.

While I fall on the technological optimist side of things (i.e. new types of jobs will be created by new technology), my concern is 1) the lag between job destruction and new job creation and 2) whether workers displaced by automation will be competitive for the new jobs created by automation. As the World Economic Forum points out, this is an immense opportunity for worker retraining and reskilling. What they don’t highlight, however, is that worker retraining and reskilling has not historically been an extremely effective tool for addressing factory closure or mass layoffs. In some respects the Forum alludes to this in the report “As the types of skills needed in the labour market change rapidly, individual workers will have to engage in life-long learning if they are to remain not just employable but are to achieve fulfilling and rewarding careers that allow them to maximize their employment opportunities.” Easier said than done.

If the change is truly rapid, traditional education pathways (four-year degree or two-year certificate programs) are insufficient mechanisms to insulate workers from displacement without large reductions in life-long earning potential. Online education is a likely pathway to life-long learning since it has the potential to engage workers across a variety of mediums while workers remains employed. However, online education is not without its pitfalls. 
As a self-professed Massively Open Online Course (MOOC) junkie, I can tell you that life-long learning, or any type of learning, is a time consuming process. If the life-long learning burden falls upon workers it will almost inevitably equate to time spent away from other things – spending time with kids, vacation, yelling at your favorite soccer team, you know the important stuff. Along with the time commitment, navigating the vast array of options available is a challenge. Coursera alone offers 2,274 courses packaged into a variety of specializations and certificates. edX offers three types of certificate programs: MicroMasters (~46 total offerings), Professional (~52), and xSeries (~42) certificates. Which of these, exactly, is going to insulate me from automation? For someone without a bachelor’s or master’s degree education, I can only imagine the difficulty of selecting the right pathway – especially considering that there is little evidence that employers view these certificates as bona-fide credentials.

Along with online education, other non-traditional training pathways are also emerging that could also insulate workers from the ravages of automation. Coding, web design, and user interface design boot camps are sprouting up in cities across the United States. Atlanta is home to a handful including General Assembly, ThinkFul, Big Nerd Ranch, Software Guild, and DigitalCrafts. These non-traditional pathways have their own set of challenges, most important: there isn’t wide spread acceptance among employers that graduates from these programs are equal to or better than graduates pouring out of computer science departments across the country. These programs are also fairly costly, ranging from thousands to tens of thousands of dollars.

Life-long learning may be a panacea for assuaging automation. Yet promoting life-long learning among employers and workers is going to require cultural change. As economic development professionals operate in the nexus between the public and private sector, we can expedite this cultural change. At the same time, it may be worthwhile to approach life-long learning in the same manner that we approach start-up creation. Creating community and spaces where life-long learners can intermingle and share learnings could add value to the time commitment associated with the learning process (after all who doesn’t reflect positively on their bachelor’s or graduate school days). If life-long learning is the currency of tomorrow, skill incubators and accelerators could very well be the infrastructure necessary to insulate workers and communities from rapid technological disruption.