Heartland of Talent: How Heartland Metropolitans Are Changing the Map of Talent in the U.S.

Richard Florida, Karen King, Ross DeVol, David Shideler

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Talent has become the driving force in economic development and the growth of places. But talent is not evenly distributed. For the past couple of decades or so, highly educated and skilled workers have tended to cluster and concentrate in coastal superstar cities and a handful of smaller technology hubs. Recently, the rising unaffordability of such places, combined with the disruptions of the COVID-19 pandemic and especially the shift to remote work, has provided smaller cities and metros, especially those in the heartland, with a unique opportunity.

This report examines the changing geography of talent in America over the past decade 2010-2019. To do so, it uses two basic metrics of talent: educational attainment and the share of the workforce engaged in knowledge, professional, and creative occupations.

The analysis covers all 350-plus U.S. metros, paying special attention to large metros with over one million people and the 166 metros spanning 20 states that make up America’s heartland region.

Overall, its findings suggest a subtle and nuanced shift in the geography of talent. While coastal superstar cities like San Francisco, Washington, D.C., and New York City and leading tech hubs like San Jose and Boston remain talent centers, heartland metros like Columbus, Nashville, St. Louis, Cleveland and Cincinnati; heartland college towns like Ann Arbor, Madison, Iowa City, and Fayetteville, Arkansas; and older industrial metros outside the heartland metros like Pittsburgh have all have seen significant improvement in both their shares of both college grads and the creative class.

These shifts in the geography of talent are likely to be accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic and the dramatic rise of remote work. Remote work gives talent greater choice of locations, and smaller cities and metro areas have worked to bolster their amenities and appeal to this footloose talent.

These trends however do not portend a sharp reversal in the concentrated winner-take-all nature of geography of talent in America: The clustering of talent and other economic assets in metro regions remains a fundamental driver of innovation and economic growth in the knowledge-based economy. Coastal superstar cities and tech clusters will remain hubs of this new geography for the foreseeable future. But the trends of the past decade, along with the rise of remote work, mean that smaller and medium size heartland metros and rural areas across the country can be players in this new geography of talent. These communities will need to continue to invest in research universities, community colleges, anchor institutions and workforce training systems, and work to bolster their natural amenities, arts and culture, and other assets in ways that enhance their quality of life and ability to attract and retain talent.

The below maps and bubble charts summarize the key findings of the report. Each of the maps provides the educational attainment and creative class employment data and ranking for each metropolitan, while the bubble charts allow the user to identify peer communities experiencing similar characteristics.