ERIE, Pa. -- With the abandoned smokestacks off the bay and ramshackle factories along 12th Street, it's easy to pin the blame for Erie's plight on the loss of manufacturing jobs to China and Mexico.
Yet since 2008, the industrial city has suffered a less-known and potentially more devastating exodus of well-paying white-collar jobs. Half its CEOs -- 220 jobs -- have disappeared. The city has shed 8 percent of its accountants, 10 percent of its computer workers, 40 percent of its engineers and 20 percent of its lawyers, according to government data analyzed by The Associated Press.
They are the professional class jobs that buttressed Erie's manufacturing might. And they are the type of work that has increasingly become the backbone of the U.S. economy.
After reviewing Labor Department figures dating to 2008, the AP found that a third of major metropolitan areas -- nearly 80 communities -- are shedding a greater percentage of white-collar than blue-collar jobs.
In Ohio, such cities as Toledo and Canton have had a harder time retaining jobs in offices than on factory floors. It's a similar story in Sheboygan, Wis. And in Wichita and Topeka, Kan. And Birmingham, Ala. And Decatur, Ill.
"That's one of the most painful aspects of the economic decline of these manufacturing centers: They get hit twice," said Enrico Moretti, an economist at the University of California, Berkeley. "First, they lose the factories. But second, and most importantly, they lose everyone who was supportive of those factories."
It's that second hit that increasingly matters nearly four decades since U.S. manufacturing employment peaked. Without a foundation of white-collar jobs, it becomes difficult for these areas to reinvent themselves in an era when the economy more and more requires specialized knowledge and technological skill.
"It's painful because it makes it even harder for the community to recover," Moretti said.
President Donald Trump had rallied voters on the promise that he would restore factory jobs to revive areas that had lost them. But the data show how higher-paying occupations are abandoning smaller cities, taking with them a generation of workers who could otherwise start new companies or serve existing businesses.
The AP reviewed data on employment by occupations from the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics and compared metro area figures with national averages. Jobs that were categorized as white collar include managerial, administrative and sales positions. Blue-collar occupations include production, craft, machine operation and transportation positions.
White-collar workers are increasingly shifting from smaller cities and settling in such thriving metro areas as Seattle, Nashville, Chicago and Silicon Valley. As those higher-paying occupations become more highly concentrated, the wealth they generate is less likely to filter through the rest of the country to areas with a long-standing legacy of manufacturing. And while Trump and other political leaders vow to boost businesses with tax cuts, lower taxes may do little for communities with fewer white-collar workers who could plow them into new businesses.
In Erie, many business leaders say the city mainly needs to keep and attract more white-collar workers.
Children who left for college aren't returning home as they once did. Many are choosing to live in metro areas or communities anchored by a major university, like Pittsburgh, 130 miles south of Erie.
Census Bureau data show, for example, that Chicago added nearly 40,000 college graduates under age 35 since the last recession began in late 2007. Boston gained about 10,000, Denver 25,000. Toledo, in comparison, lost 1,600 young college graduates.
In a 2016 campaign speech in Erie, Trump didn't touch on this brain drain. Rather, he blamed unfair trade -- from the North American Free Trade Agreement to the entrance of China into the World Trade Organization -- for the struggles in those communities.
Community leaders in Erie note that manufacturing remains a strength for northwest Pennsylvania. But it seems impossible to restore a long-gone era of prosperity that was built on factory work.
Business on 03/08/2018
Print Headline: Loss of white-collar jobs hurts, too