The OECD Reviews Chicago


“Although still high in absolute terms, GDP and labor productivity growth rates are sluggish – both by US and international standards. The Chicago Tri-State metro-region’s contribution to national growth has slowed over the past decade and the region does not stand out as a top knowledge hub. Despite a dynamic and numerically large labor force, the region has experienced virtually no growth in the size of its prime working-age population and displays limited ability to attract and retain talent when compared to its US peers. More worrisome are the persistence of unemployment and the lack of sufficient job creation.” – OECD Territorial Review, The Chicago Tri-State Metropolitan Area

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) is an international organization that has its roots in the administration of Marshall Plan aid to rebuild Europe after World War II. The OECD was invited by the Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce* to perform a “territorial review” of Chicago’s regional economy. I believe this is the first such review the OECD has ever undertaken in the United States. The results were released a couple months ago. Unfortunately, the OECD doesn’t make its reports available for free online, but the Chicagoland Chamber graciously sent me a copy. I did a read through of this inch-thick, 332-page report and wanted to share a few observations about it. As the quote at the top might indicate, this report, like Rahm Emanuel’s economic strategy, was fairly gloomy. My points will be topical and not an integrated narrative as I did not get to undertake as thorough a review as I might like.

Performing the Study Demonstrates the Challenge

The review focused on the Chicago metropolitan area, though frequently included the Milwaukee metro area as well. Wisconsin and Indiana were invited to participate in the project, which was notable given the city-centric nature of most civic development initiatives in Chicago and the fact that the lion’s share of the people and economic output are in Illinois. It’s a recognition of the need to think regionally. Wisconsin did participate, but Indiana declined. Explaining why, Indiana economic development chief Mitch Roob said, “We don’t do studies, we do deals.” Indiana also made it clear that it intended to differentiate itself from Illinois to attract jobs, and that luring jobs across the border from Illinois was a core plank in their economic development strategy. (Interestingly, as I’ve documented elsewhere, Indiana has rolled over and actually allowed Kentucky to financially exploit it on the other side of the state, so the behavior is not consistent).

Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels loves to criticize Northwest Indiana for not getting its act together. Indeed, much of that criticism is fully warranted and Daniels has spent enough time up there to get an up close and personal look at regional dysfunction. Nevertheless, NWI functions as part of the metro Chicago economy. Its success is ultimately tied to Chicagoland’s overall success, not luring jobs from a stagnated region across the border. Indiana may have a few huge gas stations and liquor stores right on the border, but you can’t build an economy on that. (From 2004-2011, Mitch Daniels term in office, Indiana has actually lost a greater percentage of its jobs than Illinois and the migration of people from Illinois to Indiana also slowed, so the “Illinoyned” strategy obviously isn’t working). Indiana should clearly have come to the table for this review.

The fact that Indiana wouldn’t even participate in a study just goes to show how difficult regional cooperation can be. In that regard, the undertaking of the OECD review itself shows the challenge facing the region. I should note that the report authors did a good job of trying to fairly include and represent Indiana despite the state government’s lack of participation.

Interesting Statistics

The OECD review amassed quite a bit of interesting statistical data on Chicago and puts them in the context of other major cities in the 34 countries that comprise in the OECD. I think that by itself made the review worth doing. I might suggest other cities take a look at this to determine if such a study would be relevant to them, particularly as international comparisons can be difficult to pull off.

This report is a goldmine of stats and there’s way too much to list here, but a few things that jumped out at me:

  • The OECD report benchmarked labor productivity, which is less commonly looked at in economic studies. Chicago’s is above average but growing more slowly than average.
  • Chicago has trailed the nation in job growth. Had Chicago simply matched the national average in job growth since 1990, the region would have 600,000 more jobs than it does today.
  • There was quite a bit of sectoral analysis of Chicago’s economy. In fact, they actually normalize the sectoral composition of Chicago’s economy when looking at job growth to see if its under performance in job growth was due to concentration in slow growing sectors – but it was not.
  • Chicago is known for having America’s second largest business district, but it ranks only fifth out of the top ten regions in America for the percentage of its jobs in the core city. Between 1960 and 1990, over 96% of new regional jobs were created outside downtown.
  • There were many other interesting statistics around labor force participation, mobility of educated labor, elderly dependency ratios, educational attainment, poverty, patents, the structure of governments, taxation, etc.

Excess High End Talent

According to the OECD, Chicago suffers from a skills mismatch in its workforce. This is not just true at the bottom end of the economy as might be expected, but also at the top end, where there is a surplus of highly skilled labor:

At the high end, there is a large pool of high-skilled, highly educated workers, in principle more than sufficient to fill the jobs available at that level … at the high-skill end, data for the tri-state region points to an apparent oversupply.

To some extent this shouldn’t be a surprise. Chicago is a desirable city for people to live in, particularly for educated workers inside its heartland catchment area. As with other big city talent magnets, the economy doesn’t always supply the right employment for all the people who want to live there. The many articles about unemployment in Portland, for example, illustrates this, and Chicago is similar. In that regard, you might see the skills surplus as a sign of local strength.

However, the skill concentration in Chicago isn’t producing the type of high end innovation economy seen elsewhere. As the OECD notes, “Indicators suggest that the Chicago Tri-State metro-region does not rank as highly among the US knowledge hubs as one might expect, given the size of its economy and population and its concentration of world-class research universities.”

Also, Chicago may not be as attractive a talent hub as its aggregate numbers indicate. Again per the OECD:

To be sure, the Chicago Tri-State metro-region remains an attractive place for many migrants, but it is less attractive than many of its US metro-region peers. Moreover, if the analysis is confined to highly educated people of prime working age (25+, with at least a bachelor’s degree), then the picture is even more problematic. During 2005-09, more such people moved into the area than left it, but the net gain was relatively small compared with other large US metro-regions. Los Angeles, for example, benefited from a net gain of nearly 80,000 highly educated people in 2009, compared with 3,500 for the Chicago Tri-State metro-region.

When you under-perform as a talent magnet and still can’t put high skilled labor to good use, that’s a definite sign of trouble. This was one thing that was eye opening for me in the study as I’d previously assumed the high end of the market was in pretty good shape and that skill mismatch problems were the result of a large under-educated population vs. open jobs requiring mid-tier skills.

Policy Prescriptions

The OECD’s recommendations were not nearly as strong as its assessment of the region’s conditions. This shouldn’t be surprising as it is easy to look at data and see what may be wrong, but it is not always obvious what to do about it. The recommendations fall into five broad categories:

  • Better Skills Matching
  • Improving Innovation and Entrepreneurship
  • Investments in Transportation and Logistics
  • More Green Industry Growth
  • More Effective Institutional Arrangements

First off, including “green growth” as one of only five major chapter headings is a joke. The aggregate number of jobs identified as specifically green is small. And as I’ve noted many times, there’s no such thing as green industry. Pretty soon there will just be industry again – it will all be green. So if Chicago and the US aren’t doing well at today’s industries, why would we think they would do any better at tomorrow’s? “Green” isn’t some sort of fairy dust you can sprinkle on and work wonders with. If anything, the acceleration of transition to more green practices will only drive more manufacturing offshore, exactly as it did with light bulbs. The track record of trying to create “green jobs” almost everywhere has been poor and has failed to live up to the hype, so I can’t believe the OECD is doubling down on this snake oil.

For the other areas, the OECD doesn’t break much new ground, though does highlight some interesting international case studies of regions getting it right. The sections more or less regurgitate the laundry list of organizations and initiatives already in place, then tag on “do more and coordinate better.” Examples include, “create region-wide capacity to match skills supply with demand” and “broaden the innovation focus [to include] non-science-and-technology-based innovation.”

By contrast, there was little focus on what counterproductive initiatives might be trimmed. While, for example, the report notes that many of the excessive numbers of local governmental units probably should be eliminated or merged, it doesn’t really look at how many of the alphabet soup of various non-governmental civic development groups might likewise be better off euthanized. Given the unified civic leadership nexus of Chicago, this should in theory be much easier than killing off governments, which are famously resistant to elimination. It’s hard for civic sector leadership to scold state legislatures about the need to consolidate when they can’t even do it themselves. This shows that the OECD had to deal with local political reality, so it probably pulled a lot punches in the recommendations. Statements of raw flattery such as “All key public and private stakeholders are keenly aware of what needs to be done to address these issues effectively” show the extent to which the OECD wanted to avoid ruffling feathers and challenging the Chicagoland status quo, which is disappointing.

I might also take issue with the way the problems were attributed to these structural factors without addressing at any great length many of the clear drivers of Chicago’s under-performance. For example, Chicago is the regional capital of a greater Midwest that has been struggling as a whole. It’s tough to swim upstream against that. (I’ll have more to say on other underlying factors in a subsequent analysis of my own).

In short, this report got it half right in giving us a very good look at the current conditions, strengths, challenges, and international comparisons. Where it lagged was in fully articulating the structural landscape driving the under-performance and developing compelling strategies for turning the ship around. Still, if I were a region out there looking for a good snapshot of where I stood in the marketplace, the OECD would be on my list of people to call.

* Disclosure: I won a competition sponsored by the Chicagoland Chamber in 2009.

Aaron M. Renn is an independent writer on urban affairs and the founder of Telestrian, a data analysis and mapping tool. His writings appear at The Urbanophile.

Chicago skyline photo by

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Stuructural Challenges: Are the high skill jobs productive?

Aaron-Interesting article, although it unfortunately illustrates the tendency of organizations like OECD to make prescriptions that fit pre-established policy goals, rather that respond to the empirical data. As you point out, "More Green Industry Growth", is a bit of a non-sequitur. How would the data lead to that conclusion?

The high skilled labor oversupply is an interesting piece of data that surprised me as well. I think it would be useful framework to categorize high skill jobs between "Makers" and "Takers" (obviously there is a need for a less pejorative characterization, but this makes the point) to better understand the real dynamics (over time) of what is going on.

Government, health care, education and non-profit / foundation type jobs require higher education and skills, but these sectors do not create wealth and grow the economy. In fact they must extract wealth, through subsidies, taxes, charitable contributions, dues and fees, from the productive sectors in order to survive. Hence the term "Takers". And unfortunately green jobs fall into this category due to the required subsidies to make these jobs viable.

Of course this sector is necessary, but its size relative to the productive sector supporting it is the issue, and a policy goal should be to keep it as small as possible. I think the data would show that when these sectors increase as a percent of the economy and when the best and brightest workers move into this sector rather than the growth inducing productive sector it creates a negative feedback loop that puts regional ecomonies into a death spiral. In short, the Takers should not grow faster than the Makers.

So once the Takers begin to crowd out the Makers, the source of funds for the Taker sector dries up and now the Taker sector begins to shrink, which I think is what we are seeing today in major metropolitan regions around the country. Potentially, this explains the present day oversupply of high skilled talent in Chicagoland. But to really understand this phenomenon would require a dynamic analysis over time, rather than just taking a static "snapshot" of the current situation like it is presumed OECD did.

To take this concept a bit further, many cities and regions are looking to "Eds and Meds" or subsidized "Green Jobs" as their growth industries to drive economic development. While on the surface these appear to be good policy goals for economic growth, there is potentially a structural flaw in these policies because one is increasing the Taker economy (e.g. Eds and Meds being partially subsidized industies), which over the long term extracts wealth from the Maker sector.

I have never seen this issue studied or analyzed at the regional or municipal level and would like to get access to any relevant research if you are aware of it.