Not everyone can be a super-commuter. Jae C. Hong/AP

Mapping job openings with available employees in major U.S. cities reveals a striking spatial mismatch, according to a new Urban Institute report.

Good news: America’s cities have plenty of jobs. Bad news: Many of the people who want them don’t live anywhere nearby.

A new analysis by the Urban Institute explores this concerning spatial mismatch, drawing on evidence from tens of thousands of job postings and job seekers in 16 of the country’s largest metropolises. The data represents roughly 13 percent of all new hires, based on economic indicators from the U.S. Census Bureau. It comes from Snag, the country’s largest online marketplace for hourly, often minimum-wage employment: Think restaurant, retail, and customer-service gigs.

For several major metros in a large share of zip codes, job openings on Snag far outweigh the number of Snag workers living within a reasonable distance, which the Urban Institute benchmarks at 6.3 miles.

The imbalance is particularly heavy in the Bay Area. Snag postings exceed seekers within 6.3 miles in 29 percent of zip codes, mostly clustered around San Francisco proper, Silicon Valley, and the more affluent parts of the East Bay. In just 3 percent of zip codes are there more nearby seekers than jobs.

In San Francisco, job postings outweigh job seekers in reasonable distance in 29 percent of zip codes. The report notes: “’Reasonable distance’ is 6.3 miles from the population-weighted centroid of each zip code, the average distance between job seekers and jobs for each application in our dataset.” (Urban Institute)

The effects of this spatial mismatch are becoming more noticeable to visitors here in America’s Dickensian tech capital: Thanks to a shortage of food workers, more and more Bay Area restaurants are relying their patrons to serve themselves.

It’s not hard to understand why this might be the case. In San Francisco proper, the cost of living is 80 percent higher than the national average, and housing is largely unaffordable for workers making $15 an hour, the city’s minimum wage. There’s plenty of demand for people who can serve the city’s wealthy residents and office workers, but no magical solution to transport workers living so far away.

Boston, Minneapolis, Chicago, and New York face a similar mismatch of jobs exceeding labor, according to the chart below.

(Urban Institute)

Other cities also suffer from a spatial imbalance—but in the other direction. In Columbus, Ohio, 37 percent of zip codes have more job seekers than job postings in a reasonable distance on Snag, far outweighing the 9 percent of zip codes where it’s the other way around. Atlanta, Miami, Detroit and Atlanta have large shares of zip codes where labor outweighs jobs, too.

What to do about all of these lopsided supplies of jobs and workers? There’s a role for local governments and companies alike, according to the analysis. In recent years, Columbus has made strides to connect more neighborhoods to job centers via public transit; it has also established community land trusts to help lower-income residents stay in place as housing costs rise in its urban core. Employers can do much more to make sure their jobs are worth commuting to, the Urban Institute states: “This might be through fair and predictable scheduling (many hourly jobs have unpredictable and irregular hours), improved benefits packages, transportation incentives, or higher wages.”

But San Francisco is an extreme example of what happens when the likely root of many of these mismatches goes unaddressed. In 2017, available housing in the Bay Area increased by roughly 15,000 new units—less than 30 percent of the number of new jobs over the same period, according to regional government figures. That gap has displaced not only minimum-wage workers, artists, and freelancers, but also teachers, police officers, and government employees. Even tech workers earning $160,000 salaries have found that they need to look further afield for affordable places to live. More housing, it seems, would take workers a long way.

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