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Ithaca is a bright spot in upstate jobs picture, but has its dark side too

Ithaca is rolling along, but still has holes to fill in its economy.
Terrie Schweitzer
via Flickr
Ithaca is rolling along, but still has holes to fill in its economy.


Ithaca looks really good on paper for an upstate city. In February, Tompkins County, where Ithaca is located, had the lowest unemployment in the state: six percent.

Compare that to statewide unemployment in February at nearly nine percent, or upstate New York as a whole at just under nine percent.

In fact, Ithaca has the lowest unemployment rate of any metro area in the state.

But there’s a more complicated picture behind the numbers for Ithaca and Tompkins County, which are dominated by their institutions of higher education.

“Like the guy who’s almost got a PhD who’s working as a bookstore clerk,” notes Joe Wetmore, who owns what may just be the quintessential college town business, a used bookstore called Autumn Leaves, on Ithaca’s downtown shopping drag.

Wetmore sees people stop by his store all the time, with a lot of degrees, but no work.

“People who come here go to Cornell, get a degree or two, but don’t want to leave,” says Wetmore. “They end up being underemployed just because they want to stay in the region.”

Doing the numbers

You know there’s something going on with the data when you ask people who are typically boosters for the city about it - and they play it down.

“We pretty much discount [unemployment rate], as a measure of the health of the economy,” says Michael Stamm, president of Tompkins County Area Development.

That’s because, according to Stamm’s figures, students make up almost a third of Tompkins County. They’re only eight percent of New York State, and seven percent of the country as a whole, so their outsize presence in Tompkins County distorts the picture of unemployment in the region.

“Graduate students that might be making $3,000 a year are counted as [fully] employed residents,” Stamm observes. “So we don’t think it’s a particularly good measure of the strength of our economy.”

That is not to say Ithaca is doing badly, but Stamm says it means the unemployment numbers  hide the numbers of people who haven’t found full-time work, or can’t find a job at all.

“We have people who desperately want to stay in Ithaca because of its extraordinarily different quality of life,” Stamm adds. “It’s a quirky place, so there’s people who like that, that want to stay here.”

Still looking for work

Jean McPheeters, who heads Tompkins County’s Chamber of Commerce from her office overlooking scenic Cayuga Lake explains that there are a two categories of people in the region who have trouble finding employment.

First, there are the folks who don’t have up-to-date skills with technologies like computers, or whom might not pass the drug test necessary to gain employment with one of the area’s few remaining manufacturers.

And then there are people who arrive in the area with a lot of skills and education, attracted by the scenery and universities. The classic case: the Cornell spouse.

“[That happens when] someone has come here with a partner or a spouse and they’ve decided that … ‘I’m along for the ride. I’m looking for work’ ... it’s not that big a community, so sometimes it’s hard to find that job,” says McPheeters.  And that particular issue will only become more pressing, as Cornell recruits new professors to replace retiring faculty, in competition with other top universities to offer the best situation.

So Ithaca is looking to create new work opportunities for three groups: struggling grad students, the low-skilled locals, and educated newcomers.

These groups of job-seekers are also all part of what Ithaca College economist Elia Kacapyr says is the one unemployment number that is worth watching: comparing Ithaca’s current unemployment rate to what it’s been in the past.

While there’s an illusion that  Ithaca has weathered the country’s economic downturn unscathed on the strength of its educational and medical institutions, Kacapyr says local officials aren’t happy.

“January 2011, the unemployment rate in Ithaca is 6.6 percent. We’re horrified by that. We’re used to 3.3 [percent]. On a comparative basis, we know we still have work to do to recover from the recession,” says Kacapyr.

In the second part of this series, we’ll have more about Ithaca’s efforts to recover by supporting a growing sector of the economy: high tech spin-offs founded in local universities, that will develop and manufacture their products in Ithaca.

Former WRVO/Central New York reporter for the Innovation Trail.
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