Here’s a nasty little secret about the job situation in Ulster County. County residents are increasingly commuting elsewhere for employment. The number of residents of Ulster County who make most of their earnings outside the county continues to increase, according to the latest federal figures for 2013.
In that year, only 42 per cent of wage earners living in Ulster County held primary jobs (the largest part of their earnings) in the county. A decade before, the analogous figure had been 52 per cent.
Although the figures don’t always show a consistent pattern, it seems clear that the proportion of Ulster County people whose incomes are earned in the New York City area continues to increase. They consist of a spectrum of workers.
A larger number of people from the New York metropolitan area are declaring their second homes as their primary residences. Higher wages are persuading other Ulster County residents to make the long commute to Gotham for longer periods, perhaps staying over with friends or making other arrangements. Others are telecommuting, remaining on a New York City payroll while spending most of their time in Ulster County. Still others in less-than-full-time find New York City gigs like teaching, art work and consulting viable ways of getting the best of both worlds. Finally, the shift toward contingent labor such as part-time jobs, self-employment and contract work is expected profoundly to continue to affect commutation patterns.
“Over the next 25 years, global regions like the New York metropolitan area will need to be creative and proactive to maintain their competitive edge,” New York City-based Regional Plan Association (RPA) said in an overview at a February 2015 roundtable on the future of work. “Telecommuting, economic shifts and emerging industries could upend the traditional settlement and commutation patterns.”
Census data provides evidence of all these trends. Here are a few highlights based on the home-to-work statistics for 2003 (first year available), 2011 and 2013 (most recent year available). I aggregated county data to create appropriate regions.
The data shows that Ulster County residents working in their own county have continued to decline in numbers, from 37,469 in 2003 to 29,042 in 2011 and 28,647 in 2013. With the gradual improvement of the local economy, the rate of new commuters outside the county has dropped from an average of 1000 jobs a year to 200 a year in the most recent two years, 2012 and 2013. But the county is still not holding its own in terms of the creation of local jobs.
It will surprise some local officials that Ulster County people are not commuting in greater numbers to the most nearby counties. I added the commutation numbers from Ulster to Putnam, Dutchess, Orange, Sullivan, Greene, Columbia and Delaware counties. The total number of commuting Ulsterites within the region was 19,172 in 2003, 19,654 in 2011 and 19,763 in 2013. The annual increase in the number of such commuters to the region has been on the order of 40 per year. Not much change.
How about to the Capital region? Commuting Ulsterites to Albany, Schenectady, Rensselaer and Saratoga counties have increased by about ten per year, from 1958 in 2003 to 2047 a decade later. Not much of a shift there, either.
Then there’s New York City and its inner New York suburbs (Suffolk, Nassau, Westchester and Rockland counties). They’re another story. Those nine New York counties contributed the largest share of the earnings of 10,375 Ulster workers in 2003, 11,815 in 2011 and 12,456 in 2013. An average of 200 more Ulsterites each year made their money in the inner Big Apple region in the 2003-2011 period, and that number jumped to over 300 more per year in 2012 and 2013. If that more robust trend were to continue through 2019, half as many Ulster people would have their primary jobs in the New York City area as in Ulster County itself. The times they are a’changin’.
Traditionally, Ulster County residents have worked in Manhattan. The number of such workers were 3181 in 2003, 3954 in 2011 and 4232 in 2013. There’s been a gain in more recent years in Brooklyn, too. Commutation to there increased from 866 in 2003 to 1237 a decade later.
In the inner suburban counties around the Big Apple, the number of Ulster workers has been increasing, too, from 4664 in 2003 to 5115 in 2011 and 5246 in 2013.
These substantial numbers are one reason why Ulster County is providing more parking spaces at the Saugerties, Kingston and New Paltz Thruway entrances. They’re one reason why Trailways provides more buses to New York City. They’re one reason that the parking lots at the Poughkeepsie train station on the East Shore and the Highland Mills train station on the West Shore are busier than ever. This evidence of changes in traditional commutation choices represents the most tangible fraction of a much deeper pattern. The changes go well beyond parking spaces.
Though Ulster County gives signs of becoming an exurban outpost of New York City, that is not its goal and may not be its destiny. Ulster County would like a greater share of New York City’s high wages. It is hoping to use its natural, cultural and human assets to attract those of New York City’s multitude of knowledge workers who seek the best of both worlds: an exciting, well-paying and productive urban work environment and an improved living environment in a real community.
At its February roundtable, RPA cited particularly the evident need for more choices among the urban neighborhoods in the New York region. “The region can build on its in-place infrastructure and network of mixed-use downtowns of various types and densities,” RPA suggested. “These are the places that attract creative and technology businesses and their workforce, but will need to be retrofitted to meet changing needs and preferences.”