Region Willing to Work

Rick Barisano braves the frigid temperatures as he works around the foundation at the future site of the T.G.I. Friday’s restaurant in the new Target plaza in Dartmouth. A study released today shows that SouthCoast has posted positive growth in its labor force, despite falling numbers statewide.

SouthCoast Defies Statewide Trend of Declining Labor Force
By Brian Boyd, Standard-Times Staff Writer
Photo Credit: Peter Pereira/The Standard-Times

Rick Barisano braves the frigid temperatures as he works around the foundation at the future site of the T.G.I. Friday’s restaurant in the new Target plaza in Dartmouth. A study released today shows that SouthCoast has posted positive growth in its labor force, despite falling numbers statewide.

While the number of able-bodied workers in Massachusetts has dwindled in recent years, SouthCoast is bucking the trend with a growing work force, a new study says.

The size of the state’s labor force declined by 1.7 percent over the last three years and appears on track for its fourth consecutive decline in 2006, according to a study released today.

By comparison, Bristol County’s labor force expanded by 2.9 percent from 2000-05 and Plymouth County’s rose by 1.6 percent. The six-year statewide number remained stagnant, said the study, produced by the Massachusetts Institute for a New Commonwealth and the Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University.

The area’s growth was modest compared to national trends. The country’s labor force expanded by nearly 5 percent in the same six-year period, the study says.

The study attributes the statewide decline to two trends: the loss of working-age residents to other states and the lower participation in the work force by men.

The state’s high cost of living encourages workers to look elsewhere for opportunities, experts say.

“As other regions of the country provide different job opportunities, but more importantly lower cost of living, lower housing costs, you have seen this hemorrhaging of people from the Northeast,” said Paul Vigeant, UMass Dartmouth’s assistant chancellor for economic development.

While the state is at a competitive disadvantage because of high costs, SouthCoast benefits from having lower housing prices compared to Boston.

The region has gained people migrating from elsewhere in the state, searching for savings, Mr. Vigeant said. “It’s a fact people have finally figured out we’re not as remote from Boston as people might have thought,” he said.

Boston’s cost of housing is out of reach for many, including some entry-level professionals, said Jon Bryan, a professor in the Department of Management at Bridgewater State College and a labor and employment specialist.

“You would not be surprised if those new young professionals attempt to migrate to an area where they will be able to have more disposable income,” Dr. Bryan said.

The Mass Inc-Northeastern study also found that:

  • Massachusetts is the only state to experience a decline in labor force each of the last three years.
  • Massachusetts is second only to New York in percentage of population lost to other states from 2000 to 2005. More than 200,000 people left the Bay State, and only international immigrants prevented the state from an overall population loss, according to the study.
  • The state is primarily losing working-age adults, not retirees, especially ages 16 to 24 and 35 to 54.
  • The leading destinations for former Massachusetts residents are Florida, New Hampshire, Texas, Connecticut, Rhode Island and North Carolina.
  • Since 2000, there has not been an increase in the number of people commuting to Massachusetts from other states for work, according to the study.

Education gap
The study concluded that men are more likely to drop out of the labor force — defined as including all people of working age who are employed or actively seeking a job — than in years past.

From 1990 to 2000, the percentage of men ages 16 to 64 participating in the labor force fell by 4 percentage points, from 89.5 percent to 85.5 percent. Women’s participation in the labor force rose by nearly 1 percent, to 74.3 percent, during the same time.

Men with a high school diploma or less have withdrawn from the labor force at a faster rate than better educated men.

The percentage of men in the labor force with no high school diploma fell more than 10 percentage points, to 65.5 percent, from 1990 to 2000. The percentage of men with a diploma or an equivalency degree dropped by nearly 7 percent, the study says.

Industries more receptive to hiring women, such as health care, have enjoyed job growth, said Andrew Sum, the report’s lead author and director of Northeastern’s Center for Labor Market Studies.

“Men with limited education have been especially hard hit by changes in job structure and wage opportunities,” Mr. Sum said in a news release.

Men with little education are disproportionately hurt by the loss of manufacturing jobs and illegal immigration, Dr. Bryan said. “I’m very concerned about our loss of manufacturing jobs because that was an area for America to provide good middle class wages for relatively unskilled workers,” he said.

Warning signs
While only three Massachusetts counties — Suffolk, Middlesex, and Norfolk — lost working-age residents, the study’s authors argue the overall numbers do not bode well for the state’s economy.

A growing labor force often indicates a strong economy. On one hand, an expanding economy attracts new residents. On the other hand, the availability of workers, especially educated ones, lures business to the state, the authors of the study said in their executive summary.

“If employers expand their operations and new employers locate to take advantage of skilled workers, the economy grows, creating more opportunities,” the study said.

Mr. Vigeant of UMass Dartmouth said the statewide problem could serve as a warning to SouthCoast.

If the region does not continue to recruit businesses and maintain quality of life, it could suffer the same hemorrhaging of people the state is experiencing as a whole, Mr. Vigeant said.

The region traditionally lost people, rather than gained them. From 1950 to 2000, the area saw highly educated residents leave for job opportunities elsewhere, Mr. Vigeant said.

“The inflow is just starting to restore some of losses we experienced in the previous 50 years,” he said.

Contact Brian Boyd at

Date of Publication: December 10, 2006 on Page A07