Feb 16, 2022 - Business

Study finds coastal workers are trickling into Heartland states

A map of the U.S. noting 384 metro areas analyzed by Heartland Forward.
The metro areas analyzed by Heartland Forward. Go here for an interactive version. Image courtesy of Heartland Forward

In the continuous battle for human capital, middle America is gaining ground. Though it may only be inches.

What's happening: A new report by Bentonville, Arkansas-based Heartland Forward found that between 2010 and 2019, workers were slowly migrating from the coasts to the 20 central states that make up the heartland.

Why it matters: Both large and small metropolitan areas in those states stand to benefit economically from the shift.

  • The winners will be the metros that can leverage their existing amenities to provide increased quality of life and develop regional hubs of similar industries, like tech, transportation, robotics or engineering.

What they did: Researchers, including Richard Florida, who wrote "The Rise of the Creative Class," used census and U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data to analyze the geography of talent over time in 384 metros. They focused on two types of workers.

  • The first group included adults 25 and older with a bachelor's degree or higher.
  • The second — dubbed the "creative class" — includes workers 16 or older in jobs ranging from education to business management to health care. They may or may not have bachelor's degrees.

What they found: Metros like Cincinnati and Columbus, Ohio; Nashville, Tennessee, and St. Louis grew both their college graduates and creative class between 2010 and 2019.

  • College towns like Ann Arbor, Michigan; Madison, Wisconsin; Iowa City, Iowa and Fayetteville are now somewhat competitive with places like San Francisco and Washington, D.C.

The intrigue: While the shift from the coasts has accelerated some during the pandemic — a timeframe not captured in the report — Florida doesn't expect a dramatic migration to the heartland.

  • Young talent will continue to head to coastal cities and tech hubs — but may move when they start to build families, he said.

The bottom line: The steady migration coupled with the rise of remote work means that smaller and medium-size heartland metros and rural areas can now attract more diverse talent.

  • It's estimated that 20–25% of U.S. full-time workers will work remotely after the pandemic, according to the report.
  • Locations with research universities, foundations and institutions that invest in regional culture will be more successful in recruiting talent.

What they're saying: "The places that are talent winners are places that have worked hard to be that," Florida told Axios.

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