ITHACA, N.Y. — Looking at the jobs reports and population estimates, things appear a bit odd. Or, in statistician’s parlance, it would be a “suspect anomaly”.

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From July 2014 to July 2015, Tompkins County’s economy added about 2100 jobs. But it also added less than 200 people. Expanding the numbers out over the past decade, from July 2006 to July 2015, Tompkins County added about 5,000 residents, but 7,800 jobs.

Those people include not only working adults, but also non-working population segments – children, students, retirees, and those who for whatever reason, just aren’t a part of the workforce. The national average for the working segment of a population is about 60%.

An argument could be made for those working multiple jobs, but nationwide, about 80% of jobs are full-time. The federal Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) doesn’t track numbers for individual metropolitan areas.

With those details in mind, let’s do a little gut-check math. For an increase of 7,800 jobs, a ballpark estimate for the population growth would be 13,000 (7800/0.6). If one assumes Ithaca’s full-time/part-time ratio is similar to the rest of the country, and those working part-time are holding down two jobs, the population growth estimate drops to 11,700. That’s still more than double the estimate. Something isn’t right.

Being inquisitive, the question was asked to the staff of Tompkins County Area development (TCAD).

“My guess is, one, the BLS numbers are a little misleading because they count all the student employment, and two, Tompkins is a regional work center. I seem to remember that we net something like 11,000 workers driving into the county every day for work,” said Heather McDaniel, Vice President and Director of Economic Development Services at TCAD.

Martha Armstrong, TCAD’s Vice President and Director of Economic Development Planning, agreed. “In-commuting has increased steadily since at least 1980 — so some of those jobs are filled by people from the surrounding region.”
The student employment factor can be discounted somewhat because the numbers are July estimates, when the college aren’t in session. But the possibility that there are more and more people driving into Tompkins County for work seems plausible.

The county has done some work analyzing in-commuting and out-commuting through the Ithaca Tompkins County Transportation Council. In 2008, the number of daily in-commuters was estimated at 14,900. In contrast, about 4,500 people left the county to work in other counties.

An increase in out-of-county commuters does have its pros and cons. The pros are, the ability to provide ample labor for Tompkins’ growing economy, and giving economic stability to neighboring counties. But there are several cons – additional traffic and wear-and-tear on the roads, a larger environmental impact from transportation emissions, and less of a tax benefit to county coffers since workers live elsewhere.

But, one big consideration in all this is choice – some don’t want to live in Tompkins County, some would like to but can’t find suitable housing. One component of the the county housing study currently underway is trying to figure out exactly how many inbound commuters would live here if they could.

“A number of years ago — five, ten, not more, there was a transportation planning process that included a survey of Cornell employees about where they live and where they would prefer to live if the right kind of housing was available,” explained Armstrong.

“It was a mixed bag.  A sizable percent choose to live outside Tompkins County because that is their community, or their spouse commutes in another direction, etc. Others would live in the County if the housing they wanted existed in their price range.”

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Brian Crandall

Brian Crandall reports on housing and development for the Ithaca Voice. He can be reached at bcrandall@ithacavoice.com.