One of the most important forces in human affairs is the power of example. Sometimes it manifests as competitive resentment or envy – “If he/she can do it, why can’t I?” In other cases, it emerges as sympathetic inspiration – “If so-and-so succeeded after enduring such a horrible event as that, surely I can overcome my own less catastrophic history.” In both cases, it is possible to find motivation and inspiration from the example of others.
It is interesting, in this regard, to search for whatever lessons may be learned from an examination of the position of Maine’s three census-defined metropolitan areas within the list of 382 such areas across the country. Using labor productivity – defined as the dollar value of total economic output per worker in each area –as one metric, it is generally true that the larger an area’s total population, the higher its labor productivity.
The New York metro area, with an estimated 2015 population of 19.6 million, has a labor productivity of $148,000 per worker. The smallest metro area – Carson City, Nevada, with a population of just over 55,000 – has a labor productivity rate of $99,000 per worker. The average labor productivity rate of the 10 largest metro areas was $128,000 per worker, while the average for the 10 smallest areas was $96,000 per worker.
Just as importantly, this productivity differential between large and small metro areas has been growing. The average inflation-adjusted increase in labor productivity for the top 10 metro areas between 1978 and 2015 was 1.2 percent. For the bottom smallest 10 areas, it was 0.8 percent.
While these general trends are not rigidly true across all areas, the general pattern is apparent – and the same pattern is evident in Maine’s three metro areas.
• The Portland metro area (Cumberland, York and Sagadahoc counties) ranked 104th among the nation’s 382 areas. Its labor productivity in 2015 stood at $87,000 per worker, and its increase in real productivity since 1978 stood at 1.1 percent.
• The Bangor metro area (Penobscot County) ranked 268th. Its labor productivity in 2015 stood at $78,000 per worker, and its increase in real productivity since 1978 stood at 0.5 percent.
• The Lewiston metro area (Androscoggin County) ranked 342nd. Its labor productivity in 2015 stood at $81,000 per worker, and its increase in real productivity since 1978 stood at 1.2 percent.
While the national pattern of labor productivity declining with population size held true for Maine’s three metro areas, both the Portland and Lewiston areas exhibited growth in productivity that nearly equaled that of the nation’s top 10 metro areas, surely a positive sign. It is interesting, therefore, to dig a bit deeper to see how Maine’s three metro areas compare to their peers – here defined as the four metro areas above and below them in the population size list.
For the Portland area, its eight peers include Spokane, Washington; Santa Rosa, California, and Lexington, Kentucky. The average labor productivity for this group of nine peers (the 100th through 108th largest metro areas) was $102,000 per worker, and their average productivity growth since 1978 was 0.9 percent.
Comparatively speaking, the Portland area was last among the nine in level of worker productivity at $87,000 per worker, just below Lexington and far below Santa Rosa’s $126,000. In productivity growth, Portland fared better. Its 1.1 percent growth ranked fifth among the nine, well above the peer average but far below the leaders. Perhaps a closer examination of the patterns of growth in these areas would give Portland some insight into how to accelerate its economic growth prospects.
For the Bangor area, its eight peers include Decatur, Alabama; Jefferson City, Missouri, and Wichita Falls, Texas. The average labor productivity for this group (the 264th through 272nd largest metro areas) was $91,000 and their average productivity growth since 1978 was 1.0 percent.
Within this group, the Bangor area was last among the nine in level of worker productivity at $78,000 per worker, far below the top figure of $107,000 for Wichita Falls. In productivity growth, Bangor’s rate of 0.5 percent ranked 8th in the group, barely above Decatur’s 0.47 percent increase. Again, a closer examination of the patterns of growth in Bangor’s peer areas might provide some insights about how to adjust its economic growth strategies.
Finally, for the Lewiston area, its eight peers include Michigan City, Indiana; Sumter, South Carolina, and Lima, Ohio. The average labor productivity for this group (the 338th through 346th largest metro areas) was $94,000, and its average productivity growth since 1978 was 0.9 percent.
The Lewiston area ranked eighth in its group in worker productivity at $81,000 per worker, well above Sumter’s $68,000 but far below Lima’s $107,000. In productivity growth, Lewiston ranked second among the nine at 1.2 percent, falling below only Lima’s 1.4 percent growth.
In all of these comparisons, Maine’s metro areas show some signs of strength and some of weakness. My point here is simply to say that by considering their economic fates in context rather than simply as some individually fated good or poor luck, they would all gain by a careful comparison of their standing relative to somewhat similar areas.
Charles Lawton, Ph.D., is a consulting economist. He can be contacted at: