March 18, 2019 by Clare Coffey
“A recent Gallup poll found that although most Americans live in cities, if given a choice, they would prefer to live in rural areas. What’s stopping them?” wondered Michele Anderson in a recent New York Times op-ed.
Andersen is what Wendell Berry calls a “homecomer,” someone who returns to their rural roots after decamping for a period to larger urban environments. In her moving essay on returning to the Minnesota town where her great-great-great grandmother farmed a homestead, she reflects on the scope Fergus Falls has given to her work as a writer, activist, and arts advocate.
But what about the people who don’t have the flexibility of a highly mobile creative class career? Is returning to a small town like Fergus Falls a viable option for them? After all, the need to make a living and maintain quality of life is doubtless a large part of what’s stopping other potential “homecomers” from returning to their hometowns.
The Fergus Falls MSA currently has a population of 58,444, with 2.1% growth expected over the next five years. And while its 2.7% growth rate doesn’t match the national 7.8%, the area certainly isn’t emptying out.
The median household income is $55,581, $2,500 below the national median. But given that Fergus Falls scores a 99.5 on the Emsi Cost of Living Index, lower than Minnesota (102) or the national average (100), that money might go farther than you’d expect. (For context, Portland scores 115.1, and NYC scores 138.4.)
More good news for Fergus Falls: according to our community indicators map, only 6.2% of the population live in poverty, 4.3% lower than the national poverty rate. The mean commute time is 21 minutes, compared to a national 26.4.
Still, affordable and convenient doesn’t mean much if you can’t find a job. What could expatriates of Fergus Falls reasonably expect to do upon arrival in their hometown?
We ran an industry cluster analysis for Fergus Falls looking at industry growth, earnings, regional specialization, and regional competitiveness. The goal was not just to find industries with good jobs, but industries where your chance of finding a job is better in Fergus Falls than in the nation at large.
Within those parameters, local education and training, food processing and manufacturing, and local government services were the top three industry clusters. These industries employ a wide range of occupations, from teachers and nurses to sheriffs, janitors, and maintenance workers, to slaughterers, meat packers, and freight movers.
With electric power generation and transmission, upstream metal manufacturing, and local utilities comprising the rest of the top industries, there’s a base of blue collar jobs in the area, some of them quite well paying. For instance, power plant operators and electrical power-line repairers and installers make a median $59.37 and $37.68 per hour, respectively.
Some of the industries within those clusters have seen significant growth in recent years. Meat processing grew by 336% since 2014, while metal rolling, drawing, and extruding saw 219% growth in the same time period.
According to our profile analytics, most workers posting profiles in the Fergus Falls region list local and Midwestern schools as their alma mater. On one hand, this means that local educational institutions are developing the regional workforce.
On the other hand, Fergus Falls has a lower than average population of millennials (age 20 to 34) for a region of its size. This suggests that young adults who leave, either to further their education or in search of a job, tend not to return.
Fergus Falls hosts a campus of the Minnesota State Community and Technical College, where, in addition to a range of transfer programs, students can get certifications in accounting, nursing, business, banking, and various types of medical technology. However, our profile analytics show that graduates of the school don’t, for the most part, stay in Fergus Falls.
The good news is that they don’t go far: Fargo, North Dakota is the biggest magnet, with 925 profiles compared to Fergus Falls’ 87.
In order to retain and regain significant numbers of its young people who leave in search of opportunity, Fergus Falls needs to continue to develop and expand its economic base. One of the best ways to accomplish this is by highlighting the available workforce.
In 2018 the Fergus Falls region had a labor force of 31,964, with 26,499 jobs. That surplus means that there are 5,465 people of working age available to companies willing to locate in the area.
Fergus Falls residents obtain bachelor’s degrees at slightly lower rates than the national average: 15.8% vs. 18.6% respectively.
However, 37% have some college education or an associate’s degree, compared to 29% nationally. The local educational pipeline has shrunk by 18% over the last five years, but programs supporting adult workers who wished to complete their college degree or receive additional certifications could help build it back up. And with a stronger educational pipeline in place, the region will become more attractive to new bulwarks for the local economy.
Fergus Falls isn’t, by any means, a dying town. In fact, 5.5% of its workers are remote (compared to 4.7% nationally), which may be a sign that people are already starting to take advantage of the quality of life and other intangible benefits it provides. As Andersen writes “This is the rural life that I know exists all over the country: It can be stimulating and rewarding, a place for bold creativity.”
The potential of rural America becomes most fully visible when backed up by the specifics of data. And for those trying to chart a path forward, it’s a tool as important as the hammer and plough were when Andersen’s ancestors broke ground on their homestead.
Interested in finding out what Emsi data can do for your hometown? Contact Josh Wright to learn more.