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The Winners and Losers of the U.S. Creative Class

San Francisco, D.C., and Boston remain the nation’s leading creative class hotspots, but some Rustbelt and Sunbelt metros have seen substantial growth.

Cincinnati has seen its creative class grow by 21 percent between 2000 and 2014. (photo.ua / Shutterstock.com)

One of the most troubling trends of the past decade or so has been the deepening economic divide among the winners and losers in the talent-driven U.S. knowledge economy. But recently there are signs that conditions in a number of formerly troubled U.S. cities and metros may be improving. A recent study I wrote about here noted the substantial brain gain that is occurring in Rustbelt metros like Pittsburgh.

Spurred on by this, I decided to take a closer look at what has happened to the creative class—made up of knowledge workers, tech workers, artists, designers, entertainers, and professionals in education, healthcare, and law—over the past fifteen years or so. While most studies equate talent with the share of adults who hold college degrees, the creative class gauges what workers actually do by identifying the occupations in which they’re employed. Since I first wrote about this class more than a decade ago, it has gained millions more members. Today it comprises roughly a third of the workforce and accounts for about half of all wages and salaries across the United States.

But which metros have the largest concentrations of the creative class today? And where has the creative class grown the most since 2000?

With help from my Martin Prosperity Institute (MPI) colleague Charlotta Mellander, I tracked the growth of the creative class across the 51 largest U.S. metros between 2000 and 2014. (We exclude one original occupation from this analysis—high-end sales—due to data and regional changes. This reduces the creative class share of the workforce across the nation by roughly three percent.) MPI’s Isabel Ritchie mapped the data (the tables below abbreviate metro names).

Mapping creative class concentrations

The map below shows the geography of the creative class back in 2000, while the table shows the ten metros where the creative class made up the highest and lowest concentrations of the workforce in that year. Back in 2000, San Jose (the Silicon Valley) topped the list, followed by Washington, D.C.; Boston; Austin; Raleigh; and San Francisco. Seattle, New York, Baltimore, and Hartford rounded out the top ten. At the bottom of the list were Las Vegas, Riverside, Miami, Louisville, and Memphis.

Large Metros With the Largest and Smallest Creative Class Shares (2000)

Top Ten Share of Creative Class
San Jose 39.1%
Washington, D.C. 38.8%
Boston 35.6%
Austin 35.0%
Raleigh 34.9%
San Francisco 34.2%
Seattle 31.9%
New York 31.4%
Baltimore 31.2%
Hartford 31.1%
Bottom Ten Share of Creative Class
Las Vegas 14.6%
Riverside 21.7%
Miami 22.6%
Louisville 22.9%
Memphis 23.5%
Indianapolis 24.2%
Buffalo 24.6%
Orlando 24.8%
Jacksonville 25.0%
Salt Lake City 25.0%

Now scroll forward to 2014. Again the leading regions are familiar. San Jose still tops the list, followed by D.C., Boston, and San Francisco, all of which were on the 2000 list. Hartford and Baltimore have both moved up a bit. Austin has moved down a bit. Seattle also remains on the list. Raleigh has fallen out of the top ten, while Minneapolis-St. Paul and Denver move onto the list.

The top ten U.S. metros also have a significantly higher percentage of the creative class in 2014 than they did in 2000, with two metros surpassing 40 percent. The bottom of the 2014 list is similar to the one for 2000, including metros like Las Vegas, Riverside, Memphis, Orlando, Louisville, and Miami. That said, the percentage of the creative class in these lagging metros has increased as well.

Large Metros With the Largest and Smallest Creative Class Shares (2014)

Top Ten Share of Creative Class
San Jose 46.1%
Washington, D.C. 44.6%
Boston 38.8%
San Francisco 37.5%
Hartford 37.0%
Seattle 35.7%
Baltimore 34.8%
Denver 34.3%
Minneapolis-St. Paul 34.1%
Austin 34.1%
Bottom Ten Share of Creative Class
Las Vegas 20.7%
Riverside 24.0%
Memphis 25.2%
Orlando 25.3%
Louisville 25.5%
Miami 25.7%
Jacksonville 27.1%
San Antonio 27.5%
New Orleans 27.7%
Birmingham 28.0%

Growth in the Rustbelt and Sunbelt

So where has the creative class grown or declined over this 14-year period? The next map charts the percentage change in the creative class from 2000-2014.

Large Metros With the Fastest and Slowest Creative Class Growth (2000-2014)

Fastest Growth Percent Change
Las Vegas 41.9%
Indianapolis 23.9%
Portland 22.7%
Salt Lake City 22.1%
Cincinnati 21.0%
Charlotte 19.5%
Hartford 18.9%
Milwaukee 18.2%
San Jose 18.1%
Cleveland 17.2%
Slowest Growth Percent Change
Raleigh -4.3%
Austin -2.8%
Houston -2.1%
Dallas -0.4%
Birmingham 0.3%
San Antonio 1.0%
Orlando 2.3%
New York 4.0%
Pittsburgh 6.1%
Philadelphia 6.9%

The good news is that some of the former losers in the talent game are the places where the creative class has grown the most. Las Vegas, which ranks dead last in the creative class, has seen the largest growth—a gain of more than 40 percent. Next in line are Indianapolis with 24 percent, Portland with 23 percent, Salt Lake City with 22 percent, and Cincinnati with 21 percent. Rustbelt metros like Milwaukee and Cleveland also chalked up 15-plus percent gains. Of the leading creative class metros, only San Jose registered comparable gains. San Francisco, by way of comparison, saw only a 10 percent increase, and Boston saw only a 9 percent uptick.

The even better news is that the U.S. creative class—which provides the highest paying jobs—appears to be growing more or less across the board among these large metros. Rounding up to the nearest whole percentage, six metros registered gains of 20 or more percent, another 11 saw gains of 15-20 percent, and 18 more registered gains of 10-15 percent.

On the flip side, just four metros—Raleigh, Austin, Houston, and Dallas—saw their creative class share actually decline between 2000 and 2014, though the declines were slight. Birmingham, San Antonio, Orlando, Pittsburgh, and Philadelphia also rank among the ten large metros with the slowest growth in the creative class. In the case of Pittsburgh, its gains in college grads do not seem to have translated into similar gains in its creative class. This may be due to the fact that Pittsburgh’s great universities and medical centers are attracting college grads to professional degree programs as opposed to technological or creative work.

When all is said and done, the winners and losers of the creative class look much the same in 2014 as they did in 2000. But it’s heartening to see that some of the metros with the lowest creative class shares a decade and a half ago—Las Vegas, Cincinnati, Cleveland, and Milwaukee—have made substantial gains. This bodes well for the future prosperity of these metros, demonstrating that substantial creative class growth can occur in places that once lagged pretty far behind.

Top image: photo.ua / Shutterstock.com

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