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Don Cunningham: 18-34 Population Growth Bodes Well for Lehigh Valley

By Colin McEvoy on August 2, 2021

This column, written by LVEDC President & CEO Don Cunningham, originally appeared in The Morning Call and on the newspaper’s website on July 28, 2021. (Click here to read Cunningham’s previous columns.)

Don Cunningham

Don Cunningham

It’s part of human beings’ collective DNA to seek opportunity and adventure elsewhere.

To strike out for the coast, conquer the wilderness, make it in the big city, to “go west, young man,” has been synonymous with American culture and the country’s sense of manifest destiny since its founding.

While the vast wilderness of a continent no longer exists, a thriving and growing population, particularly of the young and skilled, remains the key element to economic growth and development.  Workers are the top priority for all employers, the main reason they stay in a place or seek a new one.

This is a paradigm shift. In the past, regions recruited companies and the people followed. Today, companies want to know the talent is in a market or that the market is attractive enough to recruit new workers before deciding to stay or move.

The emphasis is particularly on the young population, those 35 and under with many decades of work life ahead of them. It’s a competition of millennials and Generation Z.

This bodes wells for the Lehigh Valley. The latest U.S. Census data show Lehigh and Northampton counties are among Pennsylvania’s top five counties with the fastest growing population of 18 to 34-year-olds.

Lehigh County is number one in the state. Northampton is fourth.

The young adult population of the Lehigh Valley comprises more than a fifth of the region’s total population, and is now the largest segment of its workforce.

There are about 150,000 of them, and growing.

The rate of growth was 10.7 percent during the decade from 2010 to 2020, outpacing all other age groups. The region’s overall growth rate during the decade was 4.6 percent.

The story is not the same across most of Pennsylvania. Two-thirds of the state’s 67 counties are losing population. Lehigh and Northampton counties are among only 20 growing Pennsylvania counties, most of which are in the southeast, east and along the southern border with Maryland.

Only two counties west of the Susquehanna River — Centre County, home to Penn State University, and Butler County, just north of Pittsburgh — have growing populations.

In addition to people migrating from other parts of Pennsylvania and the U.S., immigration has driven the Lehigh Valley’s growth. Lehigh County is among the top 1 percent of all U.S. counties for inward migration from international locations, according to SelectUSA, the international economic development arm of the U.S. Department of Commerce.

People with the right skills to meet the demands of ever-changing, technological-driven work is the key ingredient for companies across all sectors from manufacturing to health care to the life sciences.

Young talented workers are so sought after right now that many states and regions have shifted economic development incentives to recruit workers instead of companies.

The Northwest Arkansas Council has a program offering select workers $10,000 and a free bicycle if they relocate there within six months. In Georgia, the city of Savannah has targeted tech workers with an award of $2,000 to those selected workers willing to live in the city for at least two years. Tulsa, Oklahoma started its Tulsa Remote program in 2018, offering workers $10,000 to those willing to relocate to the city for a year.

Attracting workers with incentives is the new wave in economic and community development. Many states, regions and cities have offered combinations of tax breaks, student debt repayments, cash incentives or housing subsidies to lure young workers, often with specific skill sets in technology or the life sciences.

Just as with incentives to attract companies, the programs often meet opposition from longtime residents who resent governments or private money going to the new and not those who have been in the market.

The Lehigh Valley has been fortunate to not need incentive programs to grow its young population.

The pandemic and remote working wave that began in 2020 appears to be another boom for the growth of young workers in the Lehigh Valley. A recent report by international real estate brokerage firm CBRE, which analyzed U.S. Postal Office address changes, showed a 13.7 increase in relocations to the Lehigh Valley from the New York City metro market during the pandemic.

In its recent report on the best cities for remote work, the real estate analytics firm Ownerly listed the Lehigh Valley among the most desirable locations in the country for remote work because of its property values, green space, and low crime.

The construction of new apartment units in downtown Allentown and the rising demand for houses in the region were an early sign of a new population surge into the Lehigh Valley. While some of these workers are tethered remotely to jobs in other markets, their presence here opens recruitment opportunities for Lehigh Valley employers, especially in the professional office sector.

This is taking place here at a time when U.S. Census statistics show the U.S. is experiencing its lowest growth since the Great Depression, and its second-lowest rate of immigration in its history.

Too bad Horace Greeley is not around to rework his “Go West, Young Man!” clarion call to “Go East to Lehigh Valley, Young People!”

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