Which comes first, the jobs or the people?

New research from an urban sociologist suggests that the conventional wisdom that jobs bring new residents doesn’t match reality:

But according to a study in the Journal of Urban Affairs, MSU’s Zachary Neal found the opposite to be true. Bringing the people in first – specifically, airline passengers traveling on business – leads to a fairly significant increase in jobs, he said.

“The findings indicate that people come first, then the jobs,” said Neal, assistant professor of sociology. “It’s just the opposite of an ‘If you build it, they will come’ sort of an approach.”

For the study, Neal examined the number of business air-travel passengers in major U.S. cities during a 15-year period (1993-2008). Business passengers destined for a city and not just passing through are a key to job growth, he said.

Attracting business travelers to the host city for meetings and other business activities by offering an easily accessible airport and other amenities such as hotels and conference centers is one of the best ways to create new jobs, Neal said. These business travelers bring with them new ideas and potential investment, which creates a positive climate for innovation and job growth. In the study, Neal analyzed all permanent nonfarm jobs…

Neal added that business airline traffic is far more important for a city’s economic vitality than population size – a finding he established in an earlier study and reaffirmed with the current research.

So will cities alter their strategies for creating jobs to match this research?

This could be taken as a call for improved infrastructure, specifically airports and convention centers. Such projects can be expensive and difficult to get off the ground. (As a good example, see the case of the proposed expansion of O’Hare Airport.) But if Neal is right, then having more capacity to bring in business travelers would lead to more jobs. The upfront cost to expand the airport or convention center or attract hotels for business travelers would pay off down the road.

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