In the wake of its municipal bankruptcy filing, the popular picture of Detroit is one of a city on its economic deathbed. But job-postings data, and a second look at the investment landscape of the troubled Midwestern city, suggest a more complicated reality.
Of large metropolitan areas in the U.S., the Detroit region still fares poorly, with an unemployment rate of 10.3 percent in June. But that’s down from 11 percent in June 2012. Between June 2012 and June 2013, the Detroit-Warren-Livonia area actually added 9,400 jobs—an increase of .5 percent.
And judging by an analysis of online job postings, things may be looking up. Job-postings data compiled by labor-market analytics firm Burning Glass International Inc. reveal surprising signs of life in the Detroit metropolitan area labor market, which is outperforming the nation. Between calendar year 2007 and the period between July 1, 2012, and June 30, 2013, Burning Glass found total online-job-listings growth of 42 percent in the Detroit metropolitan area, dwarfing the national rate of 4 percent. In raw numbers, some 169,099 jobs were posted in the Detroit metropolitan area in all of 2007. Between July 1, 2012, and June 30, 2013, the figure was 226,715. The Detroit area’s manufacturing sector saw postings growth more than double—up 105 percent—compared with 10 percent for the U.S. at large. Listings for education services positions rose 251 percent, compared with 68 percent nationwide. Real estate jobs postings rose 216 percent, well above the national growth rate of 58 percent. Especially surprising is the vitality of software-based jobs in a city not historically associated with tech, boasting 67 percent postings growth from 2007 to mid-2013.
That growth in software-related jobs is being driven by automakers like General Motors, Chrysler, and Ford. Nationwide, manufacturing employers are now looking to hire more software developers than mechanical engineers, according to the Burning Glass data. In July, Ford announced it is in the midst of hiring several thousand white-collar workers, largely engineers and software experts. But postings growth for mechanical engineers is also very strong in Detroit, up 96 percent from 2007. Analyses of online job postings like those conducted by Burning Glass offer valuable insight into the behavior of labor markets in real time, since such postings serve as a direct indicator of business growth without the response-time lag of survey-based data sets.
Employment numbers aren’t the only source of potential optimism for Motown. On the development side, Bruce Katz of Brookings has written of signs of market momentum in Detroit, highlighting the work of Quicken Loans, the Kresge Foundation, and myriad community-development organizations to revive the city. The Chapter 9 default failed to deter the interest of developers like the St. Louis–based firm McCormack Baron Salazar, which is moving forward with plans for a $55 million residential and retail development along the city’s riverfront. Multiple projects have been proposed for the site of the Wayne County Jail, which has cost $120 million since 2011 and remains far from completion. Dan Gilbert, the billionaire owner of Quicken Loans, has said that the bankruptcy filing has only increased his optimism for the city by lessening a sense of impending doom; he called it “the first step toward a brighter and better tomorrow for our city.” Quicken Loans moved its headquarters to downtown Detroit in 2010, and has invested a billion dollars in the years since.
Not all developments proposed for the Motor City are private, but plans for publicly funded projects have attracted criticism against the backdrop of the city’s debt. While the Michigan Strategic Fund has approved plans to use tax revenue to fund a new 18,000 seat Red Wings arena and entertainment district, the $650 million project is not without controversy. Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder called the development a source of revitalization for the city, but the $284.5 million the project requires in public funding has galvanized critics on the right and left alike.
Regardless of whether such big-ticket projects will successfully create the jobs Detroit needs, the city is already seeing growth in hiring demand, becoming one of the fastest-growing markets for software-engineering jobs. And the solid recent performance of Big Auto can only help the Motor City. But as Gilbert and Katz have noted, more must be done to reverse the flow of young people out of Detroit. That’s no easy feat in the only state to show a 10-year population decrease as of the 2010 Census.