Innovation jobs flocking to a handful of US cities

Startup confidence in Silicon Valley this year is the lowest in over a decade, according to a Silicon Valley Bank report. (Reuters)
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Updated 09 December 2019

Innovation jobs flocking to a handful of US cities

  • Economists fear job clustering could have a “destructive” influence on society

WASHINGTON: A new analysis of where “innovation” jobs are being created in the US paints a stark portrait of a divided economy where the industries seen as key to future growth cluster in a narrowing set of places.

Divergence in job growth, incomes and future prospects between strong-performing cities and the rest of the country is an emerging focus of political debate and economic research. It is seen as a source of social stress, particularly since President Donald Trump tapped the resentment of left-behind areas in his 2016 presidential campaign.

Research from the Brookings Institution released on Monday shows the problem cuts deeper than many thought. Even cities that have performed well in terms of overall employment growth, such as Dallas, are trailing in attracting workers in 13 industries with the most productive private sector jobs.

Between 2005 and 2017, industries such as chemical manufacturing, satellite telecommunications and scientific research flocked to about 20 cities, led by well-established standouts San Francisco, Seattle, San Jose, Boston and San Diego, the study found. Combined, these mostly coastal cities captured an additional 6 percent of “innovation” jobs — some 250,000 positions.

Companies in those industries tend to benefit from being close to each other, with the better-educated employees they target also attracted to urban amenities.

Brookings Institution economist Mark Muro said he fears the trend risks becoming “self-reinforcing and destructive” as the workforce separates into a group of highly productive and high-earning metro areas and everywhere else.

Even though expensive housing, high wages, and congestion have prompted some tech companies to open offices outside of Silicon Valley, those moves have not been at scale. Most US metro areas are either losing innovation industry jobs outright or gaining no share, Muro wrote.

Over this decade, “a clear hierarchy of economic performance based on innovation capacity had become deeply entrenched,” Muro and co-author Rob Atkinson, president of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, wrote in the report. Across the 13 industries they studied, workers in the upper echelon of cities were about 50 percent more productive than in others.

For much of the post-World War Two period labor was more mobile, and the types of industries driving the economy did not cluster so intensely, a trend that started reversing around 1980.

Concerns that the US is separating effectively into two economies has sparked support for localized efforts to spread the benefits of economic growth.

The Federal Reserve has flagged it as a possible risk to overall growth, and some of the presidential candidates running for office in 2020 have rolled out proposals to address it. One aim of Trump’s decision to impose tariffs on imports from China and elsewhere is to revive ailing areas of the country.


Frank Kane’s Davos diary: Swiss efficiency lapses, but so far Davos lives up to the cuckoo-clock image

Updated 22 January 2020

Frank Kane’s Davos diary: Swiss efficiency lapses, but so far Davos lives up to the cuckoo-clock image

Davos comes and Davos goes, but over the last five decades, the one thing you can rely on is Swiss efficiency, right? The trains run on time, the cuckoo clocks chime on the hour, and the snow is swept from the pathways within minutes of the first fake falling. That is the common (even cliched) view of the Alpine nation and its showpiece event, the World Economic Forum (WEF) annual meeting in Davos.

But — and whisper it very gently beneath your breath — maybe the legendary standards of Swiss efficiency are slipping as the WEF celebrates its 50th birthday. Evidence of a lapse from the highest levels of attainment came at Zurich Airport, when the luggage belt seized up inexplicably, and a full 10 minutes elapsedbefore a maintenance man came to attend to it. Tut tut.

Further signs of falling standards were on display at the railway station. The booking desks were besieged, as usual, by WEF delegates keen to complete the final leg of their journey up the Magic Mountain — a two-hour rail journey involving two stops at increasingly higher altitudes.

But only two of the 10 grills were manned, and the line grew longer and more grumpy with each passing minute. The mood was not helped when some trains were canceled and an extra hour was added to the journey. There was much muttering and dark looks shot when the train finally pulled into Klosters.

But thankfully, once you got to the heart of WEF-land, normal service was resumed. There had been a reasonable fall of snow that morning, which gave the place its usual fairytale appearance, but no traffic snarl ups as in previous years, when massive snowfall had caused the place to grind to a halt.

The shuttle buses that are the arterial life-channels of Davos — for those whose budgets do not extend to the black Mercedes limo — were running with their usual Swiss punctuality: Every 10 minutes or so, or even more frequently during peak rush hours.

These, in my experience over the past few years, are becoming frequently extended. Having battled through the registration process and attended one event at the nearby Seehof hotel, I imagined it would be easy to catch a ride on a virtually empty shuttle back to Klosters at around 9.30 p.m. But even at that hour, there was a long queue of unhappy souls waiting to make the same 20-minute trip to the other side of the mountain and their warm, welcoming hotel rooms.

It was the same thing on the opening morning of the annual meeting. I left my hotel — the homely and comfortable Cresta in Klosters — at 7 a.m. in the dark, and at minus 5 degrees Celsius. Again, there was a crowd of people standing huddled at the shuttle stop, shivering and stamping their feet.

The WEF shuttle service was up to the job, however, and I got into the Congress Hall with little trouble. The airport-style screening process — maybe a little more thorough than usual in view of the impending arrival of US President Donald Trump — passed smoothly. One request though: Please WEF, install some hot-air machines in the security hall. The body shock when you remove outer clothing to pass through the metal detectors was wicked.

Then down to business, which for a journalist at Davos means finding somewhere in the congress complex where you can rest a laptop while also providing a good people-watching vantage point. Over the years, I have learned that the Central Lounge — strategically located between the main plenary meeting halls and the (private) members lounge and bilateral rooms — is the perfect spot. Now, who will come my way in Davos 2020?