Wednesday, January 27, 2016

How educated is Bear River's workforce?
It depends on how you look at it — based on where they work or where they live.

Matt Schroeder, Regional Economist

Local leaders have become increasingly aware of the relationship between the education level of their local workforce and the economic strength of their communities. Higher levels of education are closely linked to higher incomes for individuals; which, in turn, brings in higher tax revenues and lower government social program costs. People with higher education levels tend to be healthier, more involved in community organizations and give more to charity. They are also less likely to be chronically unemployed, less likely to require social assistance, and have lower incarceration rates.

More broadly, when businesses look to expand or locate in a particular area, one of the primary factors they consider is the availability and training of the local workforce. A region with a more highly educated labor pool will tend to draw businesses that need highly educated employees. Those jobs, in turn, tend to garner higher wages. Higher wages mean more consumer spending and tax revenue for local governments, which allow for investment in infrastructure, public services and community development.

These benefits have long been known and I mention them to highlight why so much emphasis is often placed on education in the public arena. It really matters for community health and development. But there is an interesting question to this issue that is seldom explored when we think about how to better educate our local workforce: Should we focus on the education levels of the people who live in our communities, or on those who work in our communities?

To clarify, we’re talking about community investment in increasing higher education attainment levels, not the funding of primary and secondary education. On the resident workforce side, this may include expanding post-secondary degree programs and institutions, or encouraging and supporting student enrollment in higher education. On the working workforce side, higher levels of educational attainment are achieved by growing the number of jobs that require higher levels of education. Community investments to achieve this may include developing infrastructure and facilities to meet the needs of businesses, incentives for target industries.

For a local city or county considering investing in these types of development projects with limited funds, where should their focus be? This is an especially relevant question in an area like Bear River where the local commuting patterns are very fluid. Thousands of commuters flow along I-15 and Hwy 89 every day to jobs in other cities and counties. A well-educated engineer, for example, may be living in Brigham City, but commutes up to Logan every day for work. Should local leaders be concerned with developing a better-educated resident workforce if they are likely to just commute somewhere else for work? Or should the community be more focused on bringing in the kinds of jobs that will help keep an already well-educated population working closer to home?

The answers to these questions depend on the specific characteristics of local economies, and unfortunately, no single answer or formula can be applied across the board. As a start, it helps to first have a picture of what’s actually happening. The interactive data visualization above allows you to see the situation for your county. Click on the map to see your county and hover over each chart to see details and an interpretation of the data.

In Box Elder, Cache and Rich counties more people commute out for work than come in. Of the three, Box Elder County has the largest net outflow, with more than 6,400 net out-commuters representing about 35 percent of the resident workforce. Of those 6,400, about 30 percent, or nearly 1,900 net out-commuters, have a bachelor’s degree or higher. The share of workers with a bachelor’s degree living in Box Elder County is 27 percent while the share working there is 26 percent. This is a relatively balanced out-flow in terms of educational attainment, but the fact remains that nearly 1,900 highly skilled workers are leaving every day for work. Ease of access to the rest of the Wasatch Front via I-15 and the short commute up to Logan make this possible, but many would likely stay closer to home if the jobs existed to support them.

Cache County has far fewer out-commuters in both percentage terms and in total numbers. The net out-flow of about 2,200 workers represents just 7 percent of the resident workforce and fewer than 600 of those leaving have a bachelor’s degree or higher. The result is that the share of workers with a bachelor’s degree or more working in Cache County is actually higher than the share of those living in Cache County — 31 percent vs 30 percent.

Rich County also has relatively little out-flow. More people commute out for work than come in, but the net outflow of 52 represents only 12 percent of the resident workforce. However, 33 of those 52 out-commuters have a bachelor’s degree or higher. The resulting share of people working in the county with that level of education is much lower, at 25 percent, than the share living in the county, at 29 percent.

Each of these counties is distinct in terms of the factors that play into why their worker flow patterns exist. For Box Elder and Rich Counties, there is clearly a current resident population more educated than the local job market demands. It may be worth exploring the possibility that those areas may benefit from a greater focus on high-skilled job creation. Cache County, on the other hand, is more balanced in terms of the share of highly educated workers that live and work there, so they may benefit most from a two-pronged approach that seeks to bring in higher skilled jobs while at the same time building the workforce to fill them.