As the U.S. economy attempts to regain its footing and grow, it's clear that certain areas of the country were affected much more than others. In these hard-hit places, many of the jobs that were lost during the Great Recession are not coming back.
In areas of the country that were insulated from the crisis, however, there are few signs that a recession ever took place. These places provide opportunities for people looking to change locations and launch a new career. At the same time, some areas of the country that were facing hard times before the recession are undergoing a renaissance. These places can provide new opportunities as the struggle for sustained recovery continues.
Unequal distribution. According to a recent study by the Conference Board, the hardest-hit states during the recession were Arizona, Florida, Michigan, California, and Nevada. In these states, wages fell 0.01 percent from 2008 to 2010, the years that marked the worst period of the recession. At the same time, wages in the rest of the country increased by 0.08 percent.
A number of factors contributed to more severe downturns in these states, according to the Conference Board. In Michigan, job losses related to the auto industry created additional pain. In Florida, Arizona, California, and Nevada, the collapse of the housing market and the lull in construction that followed were responsible for depressed wage growth.
Other areas of the country, however, were seemingly unaffected by the downturn and continue to thrive. Pittsburgh, a city once defined by the empty steel mills that surrounded it, is experiencing an upswing. The cost of living there is low compared with cities of comparable size, and growing technology and medical industries provide job opportunities.
Technology companies also provide jobs in North Carolina's Research Triangle and in California's Silicon Valley. However, advanced degrees are needed to be competitive in these jobs, contributing to the growing divide between college-educated workers and those with just a high-school education.
One of the most thriving regions of the country is the national capitol region, or the area surrounding Washington, D.C. Despite gridlock in Congress, the D.C. area continues to thrive, backed by dollars from the federal government, according to Lisa Kirchenbauer, president of Omega Wealth Management in Arlington, Va.
"Things don't seem too bad in the DC region … Here, people are more optimistic," she says. "But once you get away from the Beltway [the highway that encircles Washington and many of its suburbs], it's going to take a long time for people to get back, if they ever do."
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Unequal among genders. The impact of the recession was also felt unequally among genders. Men were more affected by job loss than women, and are now being forced to retrain to remain competitive in the global economy.
The recession has affected men and women in very different ways. According to the Conference Board, as of 2011, men's wage growth has only recovered half of its average growth rate from the previous decade. Women, on the other hand, saw their wages fully recover. The Conference Board report attributes this disparity to the industries that were hit hard during the downturn.
"The Great Recession … concentrated its direst effects on industries like housing and construction, leading to an unemployment rate that was nearly 2.7 points higher for men than women by October 2009," according to the report. "With this wide a gender gap in unemployment, a corresponding gap in wage growth is expected, as employers in traditionally male industries face a large supply of excess workers."
However, the report also points out that the recession did little to combat the overall disparity in wages between genders: Women's wages remain 20 percent lower than men's.
Rebound in an unlikely place. According to Jennifer Mapes, a visiting assistant professor in the State University of New York—Plattsburgh's geography department, some of the best opportunities for workers looking for a change are in the Rust Belt, or the chain of once-industrial cities stretching across the Midwest.
Many people still view the Rust Belt as a symbol of economic failure. However, according to Mapes, this belief is exactly what makes these cities attractive to workers. "Cities that had no downside before the recession have nowhere to go but up," she says. "They now have to be aggressive, but the opportunity is there."
The key to this type of recovery is a willingness to accept risks, and deep pockets willing to take a chance. Take Pittsburgh, for example. The steel industry made many people there rich. When steel left town, these people were willing to make gambles on healthcare and technology. Those gambles are now paying off.
"I don't think you're going to be successful without this sort of a gamble," Mapes says. "Incremental changes in small towns aren't going to get you anywhere. The last few years have really shown me that you can enact change—you can push back against national and international forces."