The Gap Between Workers and Jobs

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Workers live far away from available jobs in metropolitan areas across the country, researchers found.

At a time of record lows in unemployment, it maybe isn't surprising that there are plenty of retail, restaurant and other hourly jobs open in cities across the country. But new research from the Urban Institute shows there are parts of many metropolitan areas where people are looking for these kind of positions—they just don't live near where they could find work.

“In many cities, low-income residents live far from available jobs, and employers can’t find people to fill open positions,” says the study, which described the disconnect as "spatial mismatch."

To quantify the problem, researchers examined the distance between online job postings and applicants in 16 metropolitan statistical areas across the country, including Boston, San Francisco and Detroit. The data—from Snag, the country’s largest online marketplace for hourly jobs (mostly retail, restaurant work and customer-service positions)—comprise roughly 13 percent of all new hires in 2017, according to indicators from the U.S. Census Bureau. Applicants in the system generally have only a high-school diploma, and are evenly split by gender.

Using the data, researchers mapped out the spatial mismatch and found that in several large cities, available jobs on Snag far outnumbered the pool of eligible workers living within a reasonable distance, defined for the study’s purposes as 6.3 miles.

The discrepancy is most pervasive in Boston, where job postings outnumbered job seekers in 41 percent of zip codes.

Courtesy the Urban Insitute

In San Francisco, 29 percent of zip codes had more jobs than applicants, while just 3 percent of zip codes had more seekers nearby than available positions.

Courtesy the Urban Institute

That’s perhaps unsurprising, researchers noted, given the skyrocketing cost of housing in the Bay Area that keeps low-wage workers from residing in the city.

Across the country in Columbus, Ohio, job seekers outnumber postings in 37 percent of zip codes. (That could be partially due to the limitations within the data, as industrial and logistical distribution jobs—common in Columbus—may be underrepresented in the Snag pool, researchers note.) Available jobs exceed seekers in 9 percent of zip codes in Columbus, most of them in the northern part of the city and in nearby suburbs, while the surplus of applicants is mostly contained to the southern part of the city.

Courtesy the Urban Institute

“There’s this perception that all the jobs are in the suburbs,” Steve Schoeny, director of Columbus’s Department of Development, told researchers. “In reality, there are just as many jobs, or more, in the central core city. And so it’s about how do you connect people to those jobs within the core city, rather than how do we continue this pattern of sprawl?”

Municipalities do have some power to rectify the problem. In California, cities including Anaheim and San Francisco are attempting to make entry-level jobs more attractive by providing training and opportunities for advancement along a career path. Potential workers are more likely to travel farther for that type of work than entry-level jobs without long-term growth potential, according to the research.

Low-cost housing and access to public transit are also important pieces of the puzzle. In Columbus, officials are building affordable housing to allow low-income workers to live closer to jobs, nearer to transit and in areas where there is available work. The city is also implementing a host of transportation initiatives, offering free bus passes to workers with jobs downtown and operating several free circulators.

Those measures can help, researchers concluded, but ultimately the onus is on employers to ensure that available jobs are attractive to potential employees. That can mean “fair and predictable scheduling, improved benefits packages, transportation incentives or higher wages,” the report says. Localities can help by providing businesses “incentives to adopt these behaviors through the tax code or other regulatory measures, such as increases to the minimum wage.”

Kate Elizabeth Queram is a Staff Correspondent for Route Fifty and is based in Washington, D.C.

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