Manufacturing as Midwest Destiny

By Bill Testa and Norman Wang

In the Midwest, the terms “industrial” and “cities” are almost synonymous. Though agriculture has been important to growth and development, the region’s economy was built on manufacturing, and the sector continues to be prominent—for both small towns and large metropolis alike.

However, labor and income generated from the region’s factories began to wane 40 to 50 years ago. In response, the region’s cities have undertaken deliberate development strategies to maintain their economic vibrancy. Some strategies have focused on the historic mainstay—manufacturing—while some have focused on diversification into service sectors ranging from tourism to business services and finance. These efforts have met with mixed success, and the industry mix of most Midwest cities continues to be steeped in manufacturing. Accordingly, “Industrial cities” of the Midwest continue to address the same fundamental challenge—that is, how to sustain their communities as manufacturing’s ability to generate jobs and income continues to decline.

The chart below looks at manufacturing’s share of jobs going back to the year 1969. In both the Great Lakes region and in the U.S., the share of jobs to be found in manufacturing has declined by one half or more. A much greater share of workers now find employment outside of the manufacturing sector than are employed by the sector.[1] Importantly, though, the Great Lakes Region continues to be more highly specialized in manufacturing as compared to the U.S.

At a more granular level, the chart below illustrates the many metropolitan statistical areas (MSAs) with higher job concentrations in manufacturing than the U.S. as a whole As seen, these include very populous MSAs, such as Detroit and Milwaukee, but also many smaller MSAs, such as Decatur, Illinois, Jackson, Michigan, and Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Even some of those MSAs with smaller shares, such as Flint, Michigan, have diversified out of manufacturing only under the pain of wholesale loss of jobs, people, and income. (And Flint’s economy continues to decline).[2]

A more systematic illustration of how manufacturing has been a large part of the destiny of the Midwest can be seen in the charts below. On the horizontal axes can be found the share of manufacturing employment for all MSAs of population 100,000 and greater in 1969. The vertical axes measure subsequent (post-1969) total job growth and per capita income for each MSA. The inverse correlations are striking; the general tendency indicates that manufacturing-oriented cities fared worse as measured by growth of income and total employment. Further analysis of these cities (not shown) again indicate that the depressing growth tendency of yesteryear’s manufacturing orientation has not discriminated by population size; both big and small MSAs were similarly affected.[3]

Have any other industry concentrations or preconditions been important in determining the economic fate of Midwestern cities? Other researchers, such as Edward Glaeser, have emphasized that educational attainment of the adult population has been a strong causal determinant or precondition of MSA growth. The reasons for this finding are varied. It may be that this measure represents local workers and community leaders who were most capable of reinventing their home city when damaging shocks to the local economy took place. Alternatively, a large share of college-educated workers may simply reflect that the MSA already enjoyed an economic diversification into other key industries (employing college-educated workers) that did well after 1969. In any event, our analysis suggests that taking “percent of adult population with a college degree or more” into account explains more of the performance variation among Midwest MSAs. Together, the “share of manufacturing jobs” along with the “percent of adult population with a college degree” explain as much as 40 percent of the variation in Midwestern MSA economic growth after 1969.

Looking at these past determinants of growth, can we identify any room for local policy actions to shape the local economy? In the analyses above, we have used very simple measures of a local economy’s “industry mix” to suggest that historical development may have been destiny for many Midwestern towns and cities. Indeed a more careful accounting of each place’s historical industry mix might yield more telling findings and insights. For example, towns steeped in steel production, automotive, or television electronics may have had even less control over their destiny in recent decades. However, a more expansive view indicates that our measures of “industry mix” (above) explain only 40 or less percent of the 1969-2010 variation in performance among Midwest MSAs. This leaves much more performance to be accounted for. It seems that some places have improved their own economic performance through deliberate development policies such as work force training, tax incentives to business investment, land use reform and re-development, or public infrastructure investments.

For these reasons, the Chicago Fed’s “Community Development and Policy Studies” (CDPS) area has launched an investigation into how industrial cities in the Seventh District have taken deliberate steps to fashion their own destinies in more favorable ways. According to CDPS Business Economist Susan Longworth, an initial project step will be to “develop comprehensive community profiles of cities throughout the Federal Reserve’s Seventh District that had populations of at least 50,000 and had 25% or more of their employment in manufacturing in 1960. Research includes in-depth qualitative information, combined with the best available quantitative analyses of the trends and issues impacting these communities to identify policies and programs that promote (or inhibit) economic growth and vitality in industrial cities.”


[1]The declining share of manufacturing is overstated because manufacturing companies have outsourced functions (and jobs) to local service sectors. These include the hiring of factory workers who are on the payrolls of temporary employment firms, as well as outsourcing of maintenance, payroll, and transportation workers to outside (service) firms.(Return to text)

[2]Some well-performing nonmanufacturing MSA economies are fashioned around state government capitols and major universities, such as Ann Arbor, Michigan, Madison, Wisconsin, and Columbus, Ohio.(Return to text)

[3]Some might wonder whether manufacturing orientation continues to influence community growth in more recent years. Our analysis of 1990 to date continues to show such influence widely across the Midwest, although there is tendency of a weakening correlation.(Return to text)