Washington County wages low, outside salaries higher

  • Article by: KEVIN GILES , Star Tribune
  • Updated: February 1, 2014 - 2:00 PM

Spending power of higher-paid residents who work outside the county threatens to push out service-wage neighbors, labor study says.

Washington County has a jobs problem, suggesting a looming affordable housing crisis.

Most residents who have relatively high incomes either work outside Washington County or draw their salaries from employers outside the county.

Meanwhile, jobs originating inside the county — most of them in the service sector — generally pay low wages.

The upshot of that situation is this: Because of the spending power of the so-called outside salaries, housing overall in Washington County is more costly. To folks barely making it on service-job wages, that means far fewer places to live.

Those findings are contained in a University of Minnesota Extension labor study that cuts to the heart of County Board concern over job creation and retention. Washington County, while having returned to prerecession levels of employment, is showing deficiencies in critical areas of economic development.

“It seems to me we have a lot of jobs available, but they don’t pay very much,” Commissioner Gary Kriesel said at a workshop last week to further examine the issue.

Adeel Ahmed, who conducted the study, said the county has more service jobs than the national average. The retail sector, powered by Woodbury’s large commercial districts, accounts for more than half of those jobs.

Overall, from 1990 to 2012 — the period measured — Washington County added 24,314 jobs overall, Ahmed said. About 8,700 of those had nothing to do with efforts in the county to create jobs but resulted from the nationwide recovery from the recession, he said.

But the county also lost 1,300 manufacturing jobs in the same 22 years in large part because many companies added efficiencies that required fewer workers; others outsourced jobs, he said.

The average weekly wage paid in Washington County has risen to about $800, an increase of about $100 a week since 2000. The current metrowide average weekly wage is about $1,100 a week, the Extension study found.

Ahmed’s presentation to the County Board didn’t delve into specifics. He told commissioners that further research could be done once the county decided its strategy for economic development.

Commissioners have wanted stronger county government involvement in economic development, but they’ve debated how much they should try to influence business growth, and in what fashion. They’ve already agreed that it’s the private sector that drives the economy, and also that they won’t try to duplicate the work of cities and public agencies.

The second part of last week’s workshop involved an ongoing discussion with consultants from Springsted Inc., the firm hired to help the County Board formulate its economic development strategy.

Recommendations under consideration include pursuing transit options, enabling countywide high-speed broadband fiber networks, helping to create a pool of money for acquisition of rights of way and other land for unanticipated economic development projects, and exploring development of a revolving loan program for business support.

“Make some good short-term decisions and the long-term strategies will come,” Dave Unmacht, of Springsted, told commissioners.

Kevin Giles • 651-925-5037

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