High-Skill Cities

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

I just sent my editors the manuscript of the second edition of 150 Best Jobs for Your Skills, and the research I did for the book turned up some interesting information about cities. Specifically, I identified several metropolitan areas where high-skill jobs are particularly concentrated.

Let me explain a little about my research methodology. I started by collapsing the 35 skills used in the O*NET database into 9 large skills, based on the correlations between the ratings of occupations in the database. For example, I was able to collapse Reading Comprehension, Writing, Active Listening, and Speaking into one skill called Communication Skills because no two of them had a correlation lower than 0.89.

Next, I looked at the range of ratings that O*NET gives to occupations on each of these skills. For each skill, I divided this range into five equal zones and identified the occupations with ratings that caused them to fall within each zone. Then I took the occupations in the two highest zones (the high-skilled occupations) and computed the total number of workers in each of 300 metropolitan areas. I divided this figure by the total workforce within each metro area to find, for each skill, a percentage figure for the high-skilled occupations in that metro area.

So, for example, here are the top 10 metropolitan areas for occupations with a high level of Communication Skills. The percentage of workers in these high-communication occupations ranges from a high of 39.1% to a low of 28.7%:

1. Durham, NC

2. Washington-Arlington-Alexandria, DC-VA-MD-WV

3. Trenton-Ewing, NJ

4. San Jose–Sunnyvale–Santa Clara, CA

5. Boston-Cambridge-Quincy, MA-NH

6. Hartford–West Hartford–East Hartford, CT

7. Gainesville, FL

8. Bridgeport-Stamford-Norwalk, CT

9. San Francisco–Oakland–Fremont, CA

10. Rochester, MN

In the book, I offer the top 20 metro areas for each skill. And I notice that certain metro areas come up repeatedly in the top-20 lists.

Most frequent of all is Boston-Cambridge-Quincy, MA-NH, appearing on 7 of the 9 lists. Everyone knows that this metro area is home to a thriving high-tech industry, plus numerous world-class universities. The two lists where I don’t find this metro area among the top 20 are the lists for what I call Equipment Use/Maintenance Skills and Installation Skills, which tend to characterize blue-collar jobs.

Another high-skill metro area is Washington-Arlington-Alexandria, DC-VA-MD-WV, the seat of government and host of many companies that serve defense and other government interests. It also encompasses several universities. This metro area appears on 6 lists.

Also appearing on 6 lists are two metro areas in North Carolina, Raleigh-Cary and Durham. Not long ago, these neighboring districts were actually counted as parts of a single metro area. Together, they contain many prominent universities, plus the Research Triangle, famous for its high-tech and bioscience industries.

On 5 lists, you can find the neighboring California metros San Francisco–Oakland–Fremont and San Jose–Sunnyvale–Santa Clara. This region is well known for the Silicon Valley and for the world’s highest concentration of start-up companies.

But you’ll also find 5 lists with the metro area where I live, Trenton-Ewing, NJ. New Haven, CT, also appears on 5 lists. Both of these regions are home to outstanding universities (Princeton and Yale) and many research companies that feed on the brainpower that these universities foster. Also, they are both state capitals (as are Raleigh and Boston).

Probably the most important lesson to take away from this analysis is that high-skill jobs tend to cluster around university towns, and therefore one of our national priorities should be to encourage higher education. Although all politicians give lip service to higher education, it may suffer from false economies in this era of budget-cutting.

I hope I can find the time to take this analysis one step further and try to identify metro areas that have a high density of college students but--unlike the metro areas that made my lists--have a low density of workers in high-skilled occupations. Other research I have read, especially the work of Richard Florida, indicates that the presence of universities contributes to economic success but is not sufficient to guarantee it.


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