Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Pittsburgh ranks #2 for the growth of its ‘creative class,’ and the boom may be just beginning

Katie Blackley
90.5 WESA
Prominent urban theorist Richard Florida said his research finds that people who work in knowledge-based professions prioritize cultural tolerance, as well the quality of restaurants, parks, and cultural amenities, when choosing where to live.

In another sign of Pittsburgh’s status as one of the nation’s emerging tech centers, the region ranked second among major metropolitan areas for the growth of its “creative class” over the previous decade, according to a study released last month.

Between 2010 and 2019, Pittsburgh experienced a 6.5 percentage-point jump in the share of workers employed in knowledge, professional, artistic, and cultural occupations, the research found. Only San Francisco performed better on the same metric.

In terms of the absolute footprint of its creative class, Pittsburgh placed 18th among metro areas whose populations exceed one million people. In 2019, about 42% of the region’s labor force worked in creative professions, according to the new research. Silicon Valley, Washington, D.C., and Boston claimed the top spots, with roughly half or more of their workforces considered to be members of the creative class.

But study co-author Richard Florida predicted that Pittsburgh is “next in line” to experience the explosive growth that has taken hold in places such as Austin, Nashville, and Denver. He estimated it will take another 20 years for Pittsburgh to join the ranks of those tech hubs.

“The writing’s on the wall,” he said. And he warned, “What's going to come at [Pittsburgh] is a different set of problems that are associated with inequity [and] housing unaffordability.”

‘Quality of place’ matters

Florida, a famous urban theorist, lived in the Steel City for close to 20 years before leaving his post as a professor at Carnegie Mellon University in 2005. Now a faculty member at the University of Toronto, Florida compiled the new rankings for Heartland Forward, an Arkansas-based nonprofit that seeks to advance economic performance in the center of the country.

I think that Pittsburgh has become a place that's been more likely to attract young people.
Richard Florida

Florida has long contended that cities’ economic success hinges largely on the presence of a creative class, which he distinguishes from workers whose jobs primarily involve technical or routine tasks. Creative workers, he said, drive the formation of “startup firms and young firms,” and thus foster “a lot of dynamism in your economy and vibrant industrial clusters.”

“That [activity] utilizes [creative] talent and turns it into innovation or productivity. And once you have all those things going, then you get this virtuous circle of economic growth,” he said.

Florida noted that Pittsburgh’s universities have played a critical role in attracting research and entrepreneurial talent that has contributed to breakthroughs in robotics, artificial intelligence, and medicine. But his research shows that a broader “quality of place” is also an essential factor.

“You have to have lovely housing, lovely neighborhoods, good schools, nice amenities, restaurants, and … great educational institutions,” he said. “And I think that Pittsburgh has become a place that's been more likely to attract young people.”

And with a relatively low cost of living and the rise of remote work, places like Pittsburgh could lure even more people away from expensive cities such as San Francisco, Boston, and Washington, D.C., the Heartland Forward report noted.

Seeking an elusive balance

But Fred Brown, president and CEO of The Forbes Funds, cautioned there's a risk that current residents of Pittsburgh will be left out. His organization helps human services and community-based nonprofits in the area to access capital and other management support.

Pittsburgh’s economy has grown more resilient as it's transitioned away from carbon-intensive industries such as steel, Brown said. But he added, “With all things, it’s really important to consider how we're ensuring that there [are] on-ramps for all of the citizens within our ecosystem to benefit from those emerging new shifts and pivots.”

Tech-centric jobs, he said, do not match “where [everyone] landed as a result of the post-industrial collapse of Pittsburgh.” Brown noted. “And so some people were able to navigate that, but the masses were not.”

Florida acknowledged that the growth of knowledge-based sectors “tends to confer disproportionate benefits on the already advantaged and educated.”

“Boosting highly-educated talent, highly-skilled talent is only part of the equation,” he said, because “this group makes up … 30 to 40 percent of adults. That means that anywhere from two-thirds to 60 percent of people are lagging behind.”

“The real challenge for a place like Pittsburgh is to really bolster and invest in and tap into the skills and capabilities and talent of each and every Pittsburgher. … That's where this city and other cities need to go, and nobody's there yet. Everybody has this very unbalanced pattern,” he said.

Measures such as minimum wage increases, universal basic income, unemployment insurance and better work conditions would help to counteract economic inequality at a time when roughly half of Americans are employed in low-paying jobs, Florida said.

Brown, meanwhile, called for educational initiatives to help low-wage workers to enter higher-paying, knowledge-based professions. That approach, he said, could “reverse-engineer access to people of all persuasions to participate in this new economy.”

Competing for a shrinking labor pool

Heartland Forward’s new research shows that Pittsburgh has made gains overall when it comes to educational attainment. Compared to other large metro areas, the region ranked tenth for the growth in the proportion of residents 25 years and older who have a bachelor’s or higher degree.

Human capital is becoming an ever more important part of how regions compete.
Chris Briem, regional economist at the University of Pittsburgh

The study noted that college completion tracks closely with employment in knowledge-based or creative professions, with three out of every four college graduates employed in those occupations. Less than 60% of people with jobs designated as being creative have college degrees.

In Pittsburgh, the study found that 36% of workers had bachelor's or more advanced degrees in 2019 —
a 6.8 percentage-point increase over 2010. In places with the highest proportions of college graduates, about half of the labor force has a bachelor’s degree or higher.

Chris Briem, a regional economist at the University of Pittsburgh’s Center for Social and Urban Research, noted that older generations in Pittsburgh are less likely to have completed college than their peers nationally. But in the early 2000s, younger workers in the region ranked among the most highly educated in the country, with nearly half of those between the ages of 25 and 34 holding at least a bachelor’s degree.

“Human capital is becoming an ever more important part of how regions compete. I think Pittsburgh is already ahead of the curve,” Briem said.

But he noted that the local economy continues to struggle with slow population growth. The whole country is now grappling with the same problem, he said, due to deaths caused by COVID-19, reduced immigration since the Trump era, and a decline in worker mobility that began with the Great Recession. Pittsburgh’s fate will depend on its ability to compete in a tight labor market, Briem said.

“There will be regions that are winners and losers in that. I'm not ready to say where Pittsburgh falls,” he said. But he added, “The recent decline in the [local] labor force has me a little bit worried that we're not competing well to bring workers or retain workers in the region.”

Federal data shows that labor force participation in the Pittsburgh area has stalled in the past year and a half despite rising nationally.

Room to grow

Since living in Pittsburgh, Florida has pointed to a lack of immigration as one of its prime weaknesses. “If Pittsburgh really wanted to grow its population, just attracting more foreign immigrants would be the simplest way to do it,” he said.

While Pittsburgh has the most highly-educated foreign-born population in the country, according to U.S. Census data from 2017, immigrants make up just 4% of area residents 25 years and older.

Florida noted that, when he taught at Carnegie Mellon, foreign-born, Black, female and LGBTQ students were particularly likely to leave Pittsburgh after graduating.

“It wasn't because there weren't good jobs. It was because they didn't feel like they could fit in,” Florida said.

Brown, of The Forbes Funds, said Black professionals share similar concerns with him when they decide to leave Pittsburgh. Over the last decade, the city of Pittsburgh lost 13% of its Black residents, according to federal census data. In surrounding areas, however, the Black population grew by a larger margin, leading to a net gain in the number of Black people living in Allegheny County.

But Brown said those numbers don’t reveal that, unlike places such as Chicago, Washington, D.C., and Maryland, southwestern Pennsylvania lacks a substantial Black middle class.

“If you come here, you put your family in a good community, and your kids are the only ones or one of the only ones of their kind in the community,” he said. “Then people are saying things to your family that are not nice. It's taking you back 400 years. There's no amount of money that you can pay somebody for them to stay.”

“That's a hard thing to change,” said Florida, whose research has revealed that people employed in knowledge-based occupations often prioritize diversity when choosing where to live, regardless of their own ethnic and gender identities. “I think that part of the legacy of the industrial age is a social structure which is less open towards women, gays, single people, ethnic and racial minorities.”

“It's a lot better now than when I lived [in Pittsburgh],” he said. “But I think that's one of Pittsburgh's biggest issues. And of course, it's one of the reasons to be honest … I left Pittsburgh.”

But he said, “I think Pittsburgh is well on to its turnaround. … It’s a half a century in the making, [and] things are way better, stable. Give it another 20 years. … I think its best days are ahead of it, not behind it.”