Uphill Both Ways: Where are the Jobs in Metro Detroit?

This post is the second in a series focused on employment and commuting patterns in Detroit and the surrounding region. 

In the first post of the “Uphill Both Ways” series, we looked at employment of lower-earning residents in Detroit, Hamtramck and Highland Park in communities that have opted out of the SMART public transportation service. We found a spatial mismatch between jobs and transportation service for these lower-earning residents. More than 10,000 of these workers commuted daily to jobs with limited or no access to public transportation, in an environment that ranks as one of the most expensive in which to own a car. These added costs likely compound the burden faced by individuals earning near or below the poverty level, making it more difficult for them to attain more stable earnings and employment.

From that targeted focus, we’ll now broaden our lens to look at the overall employment patterns in Detroit and its suburbs. For this post, we’ll define the “suburbs” as the Detroit Metropolitan Statistical Area, which includes Wayne County outside of Detroit, along with Lapeer, Livingston, Macomb, Oakland, and St. Clair counties. As before, we’ll use 2011 data from the Census Bureau’s Longitudinal Employer-Household Dynamics Program (LEHD) to track the inflows and outflows of workers between the city and the surrounding municipalities. To compare job patterns in Detroit and the metro region, we’ve divided workers in these areas into two categories – Detroit and outside Detroit.

Overall, the shift of population from Detroit to the surrounding suburbs has been accompanied by even greater changes in the location of jobs. In 1970, the city of Detroit had a population of 1.5 million, which accounted for 35.1 percent of the 4.3 million people living in the metropolitan area. Detroit also held 42 percent of the metropolitan area jobs at that time. By 2011, Detroit contained just 16.2 percent of the metropolitan area population and 9 percent of its primary jobs. During these four decades, the total population of the metropolitan area changed very little; Detroit’s losses of population and jobs have essentially been its suburbs’ gains.


Figure 1

According to the LEHD data, Detroit housed almost 232,000 primary jobs in 2011. Some 52 percent of these jobs paid more than $40,000 a year, the highest wage category reported. About one-third of the jobs paid between $15,000 and $40,000; less than one in six paid less than $15,000. Detroit jobs had an estimated median wage rate of just over $40,000, compared to the metropolitan area median of about $36,000.

At 232,000, the number of primary job opportunities in Detroit was substantially higher than the number of employed Detroit residents (169,000). At first glance, these numbers might indicate a strong labor market with low unemployment. Unfortunately, however, this was not the case; only 65,000 (27.3 percent) of the jobs in Detroit were filled by Detroit residents. At every wage level, the majority of Detroit jobs were held by people who did not live in Detroit (classified here as “commuters”).

These commuters were much more likely than Detroiters to have higher-earning jobs as well. At just over $30,000, the median wage for Detroiters working in Detroit was about $10,000 lower than the median wage paid to all workers in the city. While there are almost 1.5 commuters working in Detroit for each Detroit resident at the lowest wage rate, this ratio rises to 4.5-to-1 at the highest wage rate ($40,000 per year or more).

Where Do Suburban Workers Live?


Figure 2

The surrounding suburbs contained five times as many employment opportunities as the city of Detroit, and more than 43 percent of these jobs were in the highest wage category. Some 104,000 Detroiters commuted to the suburbs for these jobs, representing just 9 percent of the more than 1.6 million suburban primary jobs (Figure 2). Detroit residents were over-represented in low- and middle-wage jobs, with more than 38,000 Detroit residents commuting to the suburbs for jobs that paid less than $15,000 a year. Detroiters held just 22,000 of the suburban primary jobs that paid more than $40,000 annually.


Overall, the data confirm that the challenges posed by Detroit’s spatial employment mismatch extend far beyond those communities that have opted out of having public transportation service. Nearly two-thirds of working Detroiters commute to jobs in the suburbs, and in both the suburbs and the city Detroiters are underrepresented in the highest-earning wage category. These trends reinforce isolation of Detroit from its surrounding communities and create additional obstacles to improving the challenging conditions faced by so many Detroit residents.

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Thank you for reading “Uphill Both Ways.”  In the next post in the series, we’ll look at Detroit in comparison with several other cities across the country with similar populations, to get a broader picture of how the city’s employment climate compares at the national level.