Big Three autos' woes driving workers to Harris Co.

November 17, 2010 3:22:55 AM PST
Houston is one of the fastest growing cities in the nation due in no small part to how well we've fared in the recession. And many new residents arrive with something very valuable: a college education. Eyewitness News went to one of the cities hit hardest by the recession to find out why those college educated are leaving and why it's both good and bad for Houston.

"I'm a new Texan," Kenneth Miller said.

Miller arrived in Houston four months ago with his dog Aladdin, a few belongings and a lot of hope.

"I was in pursuit of a better job, better opportunities, new experiences," he said. "I was ready for something new."

What he left behind was Michigan, a state big in natural beauty, but because of the hits to the auto industry, not so big in job opportunities, even for those with a college education.

John Gallagher has covered the economic and urban development beat for the Detroit Free Press since 1987.

"Michigan never really came out of the 2001 recession," he said.

Gallagher's also the author of a new book "Reimagining Detroit," in which he says a smaller Detroit might be a better Detroit.

"In the last 10 years we've probably lost on a base of 4.5 to 5 million workers in the state, we've lost about 800,000 jobs," Gallagher said.

A year ago, Michigan's unemployment rate was 15.3 percent; Detroit's was 30 percent. The lack of jobs prompted an exodus, people leaving abandoned buildings and urban decay in their wake.

"We're losing two kinds of people -- the former auto workers, the factory workers who lost their jobs and had to go somewhere else, and then the young college grads," Gallagher said.

The exodus even has a name there. They call it "Michigration" and Harris County, Texas, is among the top 10 destinations for people leaving Michigan's most populated counties.

Harris County has grown 19.7 percent since 2000, and 39 percent of those leaving Michigan have a college education. Meanwhile, 28 percent of Houston residents have a bachelor's degree. Nineteen percent have some college.

"I think that I have a lot to contribute to Houston," Miller said.

Miller's education at Lansing Community College cost Houston taxpayers nothing, but it's a bargain of sorts, according to Rice University demographer Stephen Klineberg.

"If there was no immigration, we would be forced much more quickly to provide the skills here," Klineberg said.

And more people are coming to Texas, like 23-year-old Amber Strachan. We met her near her home in East Lansing, Michigan. She's got a couple of years of college under her belt. She says she applied for at least 30 jobs and can't find work in Michigan -- and she's looking to be in Houston by the end of the year.

"They told me not only is kind of it easier to get jobs for what I'm looking for, but the housing's cheaper," Miller said.

It's a double-edged sword, says Klineberg.

"It's a whole lot easier to bring 'em in here than to train them ourselves, but in the long run, of course, that's the stupidest thing you could do, given the realities of a growing underclass," he said.

But in Miller's view, there is no downside to his move to Houston.

"I had a great job that LCC helped prepare me for, but it wasn't enough," Miller said. "I was ready for more."

More Houston, less Detroit.


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