Insight: Class and Education – Portland and Las Vegas

This Insight is the sixth in the Martin Prosperity Institute’s continuing Geography of Class and Education Insight series. The two metros examined this week are Portland, Oregon and Las Vegas, which, while similar in population size could not be more different from each other. This Insight examines the occupational and educational breakdowns of the two metros, highlighting that while Las Vegas has recently experienced great population growth, this has not resulted in productivity growth, while Portland’s highly educated and Creative Class (CC) population has the metro better situated to continue to succeed within the knowledge economy.

Exhibit 1: Portland – Share of Population 25+ with a BA or above

Click for full-screen version of this map.

Known as the Silicon Forest, the Portland metro is a medium sized region that has been able to successfully attract numerous large tech companies. Exhibit 1 presents the occupation and educational breakdown for each census tract within Portland. The same labeling is applied to this map as previous Insights. What stands out in this map is the fact that within the City of Portland most of the tracts are extremely educated despite the dominant occupation, highlighted by dark shades of purple and red. While cities such as New York, Dallas and Chicago have some tracts within the City that are highly educated, the greatest cluster of highly educated tracts were found in the suburban areas. This is not the case in Portland as it is within the City limits that most of the highly educated tracts are found. While some of the Portland tech companies cluster around the city’s edge, the downtown core has been able to draw in numerous large companies such as eBay, as the city’s success can be attributed to the ability to attract these businesses and educated individuals. Also, where there is a great educational divide between many neighbourhoods within other cities, in Portland the gap between the tracts with the highest and lowest educational attainment levels are not nearly as large . The most educated tract for example was found to have a degree share of 79%, while the lowest has a degree share of 3% (not located within the City limits). While the most educated tract in the Portland metro does not have a degree share as high as the most educated tracts in New York, Los Angeles or Chicago, only 17 tracts have a degree share under 10%, which is much less than these other cities. While most of the highly educated tracts are primarily CC, there is less of a correlation between education and occupation in Portland than some of the other medium sized metros that we have looked at such as Baltimore and St Louis. In Portland there are numerous tracts that are primarily SC that have medium and high degree shares and there are many primarily CC tracts with medium and low degree shares. The City is highly educated, but the educated population is more balanced across numerous neighbourhoods and occupations.

Exhibit 2: Las Vegas: Share of Population 25+ with a BA or above

Click for full-screen version of this map.

The map of Las Vegas is displayed in Exhibit 2, and the metro’s occupational and educational breakdown is very different than any other city we have looked at. Not surprisingly, most of the tracts are primarily SC, but the lack of tracts with high or even medium degree shares even outside of the strip is astonishing. In fact, there are only 10 tracts within the whole metro that are shaded as having a high degree share, which is a very small number. The tract with the highest educational attainment in Las Vegas has a degree share of 47.8%, which is by far the lowest of any city that we have looked at so far. In comparison, there are over 100 tracts in Portland that have a higher degree share than Las Vegas’ highest. The tract with the lowest educational attainment in Vegas has a degree share of 0.80%. The dominance of the SC in Vegas is not surprising, but the extent to which this occupational category is dominating the labour force is still astonishing. The CC is almost non-existent as there are few tracts that are primarily CC, and of the tract with the highest CC share, the percentage is only 46%, which is extremely low relative to any of the other U.S. cities we have examined. Despite the amenities and warm weather, Vegas has been unable to attract the CC, despite attempts by locals such as Tony Hsieh CEO of Zappos who headquartered the company in Vegas, have been trying to attract Creative occupations to expand the local economy beyond services.

The maps of Portland and Las Vegas present the geographical results for two cities at the opposite end of the spectrum, one that is flourishing in the creative economy and the other in which the service sector is dominating. Many SC occupations do not require employees to hold a degree, which could be attributing to the low overall degree share of 19.9% in the Las Vegas metro, compared to the very high degree share in Portland of 33.3%. While almost all of the SC dominated tracts in Vegas do have lower levels of educational attainment, in Portland this is not the case as many primarily SC tracts have very high degree shares. This is important as it discredits the argument that Las Vegas is less educated solely because its labour force is primarily Service Class. Exhibits 1 and 2 are almost polar opposites of each other as while both metros are successful in what they specialize in; Portland is much better situated to continue to succeed within the knowledge economy. Population growth has little to no correlation with increased productivity (GDP) growth, as growth is only useful if it is the right type of growth. The two maps in this Insight show the education and occupational breakdown of two cities that have grown in two completely different ways. While Las Vegas has experienced the ninth greatest population growth from 2001-2011 (more than 2 times greater than Portland), the metro has experienced negative total and per capita GDP growth during the same period. This is possibly due to the absence of the higher skill occupations that lead to job growth and wage increases, combined with a labour force that has a low degree share. Portland on the other hand has experienced less population growth, yet experienced the second highest total and per capita GDP growth from 2001-2010 and as Exhibit 1 displays, the city has succeeded thanks to a highly educated workforce across numerous occupations, and a higher CC occupational share throughout the entire city. Granted Las Vegas was built upon being an amenity rich destination to attract tourists from around the world and therefore the comparison with the tech booming Portland was bound to display stark differences. This Insight though has aimed at providing a geographic outlook of how two totally different cities look like occupationally and educationally. With Las Vegas experiencing negative per capita GDP growth, there is a need for change and this and other Insights have shown that it is possible for medium size metros to grow successfully within the knowledge economy, but Vegas must do so in its own way.

Download this Insight (PDF)

The Martin Prosperity Institute at the University of Toronto‘s Rotman School of Management is the world’s leading think-tank on the role of sub-national factors — location, place and city-regions — in global economic prosperity. We take an integrated view of prosperity, looking beyond economic measures to include the importance of quality of place and the development of people’s creative potential.