Downtown Washington gives birth to more new jobs than any place else in the region, a surprising new study of local employment trends discloses.
The District of Columbia created more new paychecks than Tysons Corner, Crystal City and Springfield combined between 1976 and 1980 and its preeminance seems to be continuing, says the report released last week by the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments.
The startling status of the District as the most fecund employment center is the most intriguing detail in the Council of Governments study of where the jobs are.
The prevailing wisdom is that D.C. is barely keeping up with its suburban neighbors. The District of Columbia still has the area's highest unemployment rate. The cost of doing business in D.C. is higher than any neighboring jurisdiction--higher rents, higher overhead, higher wages, higher taxes on both employers and employes. And the District is universally regarded as the least aggressive--and least successful--local government in attracting new business.
Despite all those truths, downtown D.C. added 25,000 new jobs in five years, boosting government and private employment there to 139,000 persons. Downtown produced the greatest growth and the greatest concentration of jobs in the metropolitan area.
During that same period, a COG census of employment found, 12,000 new jobs were created at Tysons Corner bringing total employment there to 27,000. Crystal City grew to 25,800 jobs with 6,300 new paychecks and the Springfield area added 5,600 jobs, bringing total employment to almost 21,000.
The growth rates of the suburban job centers obviously are higher than the District's 22 percent gain. The burgeoning Tysons job market grew by 80 percent, nearby Vienna's job total was up 90 percent and the emerging Shady Grove area of Montgomery County recorded a 135 percent jump in jobs in five years.
For sheer megajobs momentum, the District's 25,000 new paychecks were unmatched. But the massive growth didn't put a dent in the D.C. unemployment rate, which hung in the 6 percent to 8 percent range during the period studied by COG. The D.C. jobless rate now has climbed past 10 percent as the result of the recession, while Maryland is down to 6 percent. The statewide unemployment rate in Virginia just dropped to 5.1 percent and suburban Virginia is at virtually full employment with a 3 percent jobless rate.
The District is creating jobs, the study suggests, but not jobs for its own residents. Few of the city's new paychecks are trickling down to the unemployed, inexperienced and underqualified--the one D.C. resident in 10 who cannot find work.
The simultaneous strong job growth and rising unemployment in the District create an ominous dilemma for public and private leaders.
If the District's much-lamented unfavorable business climate is deterring economic expansion, there is little evidence of it in the 25,000 new jobs. But if D.C. development efforts are truly succeeding, unemployment ought to be getting better.
There are no answers to this anomaly, but there are explanations. The recession is one reason why D.C. unemployment has not improved along with the new jobs. Mobility is another; city and state boundaries don't mean much in the Washington area, so new jobs in the District are frequently filled by suburbanites. Lingering racism unquestionably limits job opportunities for many D.C. residents.
The kinds of jobs that are being created downtown and throughout the Washington area are also important. COG economist Robert T. Dunphy says the service sector is the fastest growing trade throughout the area. Service jobs often are understood to include occupations requiring simple skills, the kind of jobs inner city residents ought to qualify for. But Dunphy found the greatest growth was in miscellaneous business services, a category dominated by research and public relations. Data processing and software--two more fields with few opportunities for the unskilled--were second in job growth.
The District's most promising effort to create jobs for its own unemployed workers is the new Convention Center, which should spawn the hotels, restaurants and building services firms that hire the underqualified. But so far results are minimal.
What the COG employment growth study shows is that new jobs alone will not eliminate the District's unemployment problem. Conventional economic growth strategies have helped downtown D.C. become the leading birthplace of new jobs for the Washington region. The question for the Council of Governments is how the region can create jobs for Washington residents.