The recent Wall Street Journal ranking of metropolitan job markets across the U.S. was a big black eye for Baton Rouge, which fell a whopping 104 slots among cities of less than 1 million people, dropping from 113 in 2019 to 217 in 2020.
That puts the Red Stick squarely between Lake Havasu City-Kingman, Arizona, an area of roughly 53,000 known for recreational fishing, and East Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania, a borough in the Poconos with a population of less than 12,000.
Remember that the next time someone talks about our peer cities.
Unlike some lists, which measure quality of life indicators like graduation rates and health outcomes, the Wall Street Journal rankings were based strictly on employment numbers.
Specifically, the study looked at five metrics: unemployment (4.2%), labor force participation (66%), job growth (.5%), labor force growth (-.1%) and wage growth (2.9%).
To be fair, though Baton Rouge’s performance was pitiful, the precipitous decline came about largely as the result of two factors, at least one of which was somewhat anomalous.
In early 2019, Georgia-Pacific shuttered a major portion of its paper mill in Zachary, a months-long process that ultimately resulted in the layoff of more than 600 workers. The closure, though disappointing, reflected a global industry trend, not specific problems with the local economy or workforce.
The other factor was the lull in industrial construction jobs, which had been forecast for some time and is expected to be short lived.
Let’s hope it is.
But while there are legitimate excuses for performing so poorly on the Wall Street Journal list, which, admittedly, only tells part of the story of the local economy, there is one central takeaway that cannot be ignored: namely, the Capital Region’s economy remains firmly rooted in the industrial and manufacturing sector.
When plants close, gas or oil prices go in the wrong direction, or major waves of investment hit the pause button for a year or two, we have very little to fall back on. We’re sort of a one trick pony.
After years of talking about diversifying our economy and trying to fish in deep “blue oceans” for untapped niche markets in which we can excel, we continue to live and die by the petrochemical and its related services sector.
An equally depressing takeaway from the rankings was that the cities that finished first and second on the list—actually, it was a sister list of large metros with more than 1 million people— were two Southern state capitals: Austin and Nashville.
Not so long ago, these truly were our peer cities. In 1960, Nashville’s population was equivalent to Baton Rouge’s. By 1970, the Tennessee capital had surpassed us, largely the result of a consolidation of city and county government, but Austin had not yet.
Fifty years ago, the Lone Star’s capital was roughly the exact size of Baton Rouge. What is today among the trendiest hipster havens—and fastest growing job markets—in North America, was just a cow town.
How have these two cities come such a long way, when we’ve stagnated?
We know the answers, having studied both metros up close on canvas trips organized by BRAC. They spent the past half-century investing in schools, higher education and infrastructure. Their city and county governments worked together on strategic and economic development plans for growth.
They also invested in natural resources and green spaces, creating outdoor spaces that attract young people who like to hike, jog and ride their bikes to work.
They taxed the property of their residents to pay for all this, but it paid off because they were able to successfully diversify their economies. Nashville became a health care hub, thanks largely to HCA Healthcare, which opened its corporate headquarters there in 1968 and served as a magnet for other health care companies.
In the 1990s, the city diversified further, recruiting companies like Bridgestone, Nissan and UBS.
Austin, meanwhile, focused on the tech sector, and in the past three decades has grown to include the corporate or regional offices of such companies as 3M, Amazon, Apple, Google, IBM, Intel, Oracle and Dell.
The result in both cities was an upward spiral that attracted diverse, multicultural populations and both produced and attracted well-educated workers.
It helped, of course, too, that their states were wealthier than ours, less provincial and corrupt, and in on the big picture of what needed to be done.
Louisiana, in those years, squandered many of its oil and gas royalties and let industry carve up its wetlands in the process. In return, the oil and gas companies moved their corporate headquarters to Houston and Dallas, even while keeping their refineries here.
Today, we still cower to industry, which threatens to pull up its stakes and go elsewhere if we don’t grant lucrative property tax abatements that deprive local governments of badly needed revenues that could help pay for better schools, roads and green spaces—the kinds of things that would improve state and local standings in national rankings.
Because while manufacturing jobs are important, the only way to diversify the economy is to invest in all those quality-of-life areas that places like Austin and Nashville invested in years ago.
It’s not rocket science. What is hard to comprehend is why we continue to ignore lessons learned from our past and the past of others that outrank us.