The Challenge of Job Creation in the Upper Peninsula


A recent study of US employment growth between 2006 and 2023 found that rural counties have not recovered the jobs they lost during the 2007-2009 recession, while metropolitan counties regained their pre-recession employment levels more than a decade ago.

The contrasting economic fortunes of urban and rural areas are part of a long-term trend that has favored job growth in metropolitan areas over rural areas. As Harvard economist Edward Glaser argues in the Triumph of the City, cities have always served as centers of innovation, creativity, and wealth creation.

Manchester, a city in the north of England, is considered the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution, while Detroit owes its rise (and fall) to the fortunes of the automobile industry.  The transition from a manufacturing to a knowledge-based economy provides more advantages for large agglomerations as people interact, learn from each other and develop new innovations.

It is against this backdrop that this article analyzes job growth among Michigan’s counties between 2006 and 2023, and compares the Upper Peninsula’s job creation performance with other areas in the state. Jobs data are from the Bureau of Labor Statistics and refer to average annual employment numbers, while the 2013 Office of Management and Budget definitions of rural and urban counties are utilized.

The Geography of Michigan’s Job Creation 

Between 2006 and 2023 the number of jobs in the state increased by over 111,000, a 2.4 percent gain. This compares with +6.9 percent for Indiana, +3.9 percent for Wisconsin, -0.1 percent for Ohio and a national figure of +12.1 percent.












The major metropolitan areas of Detroit and Grand Rapids accounted for nearly all of the state’s employment gains (Table 1), with the largest increases occurring in the Detroit suburban counties of Oakland and Macomb. Although it should be noted that Wayne County (which is at the core of the Detroit metro area) lost over 40,000 jobs, the largest of any jurisdiction in the state.

Rural areas, and medium sized metro areas (e.g. Lansing, Kalamazoo, Flint) all lost jobs, while there was minimal gain in small metro areas (e.g. Midland, Saginaw, Bay City). In sum, Michigan’s job growth is concentrated in its largest metropolitan areas, and lags behind the nation.  

Rural Job Losses and Gains

In 2006, there were 844,240 jobs in rural Michigan; fifteen years later the total was 802,866. This 4.9 percent drop compares with a nationwide figure of -3.1%.  All UP counties are classified as rural; if they are separated from their rural counterparts ‘below the bridge,’ (Table 2) the region’s job losses (14,918) are greater in percentage terms (-11.5%) than the -3.5 percent figure for areas below the bridge. 






















All UP counties had fewer jobs in 2023 than in 2006, with the largest percentage declines occurring in Ontonagon (-40%) and Alger (-25%), while the smallest drop occurred in Houghton (-1%). Houghton’s relative success, as an earlier Rural Insights article noted, is attributable in part to Michigan Tech’s efforts to spin off high tech companies from ongoing research at the University.

This strategy has created an estimated 800 local jobs and stems from decisions made years ago by Michigan Tech’s senior leadership to promote an entrepreneurial culture.

The fact that the state’s rural counties had fewer jobs in 2023 than in 2006 might suggest that they are at a disadvantage in terms of job creation. But rural counties adjacent to the Grand Rapids metro area have experienced job increases. Allegan County, in southwest Michigan, gained nearly 10,000 jobs during the study period, while to the east of Grand Rapids, Ionia County experienced a smaller increase.

Further north, Grand Traverse and Benzie counties also experienced job gains. These increases are linked to recent population growth along the shoreline of lake Michigan.

Challenges of Job Creation in the Upper Peninsula

Rural America is hampered by the fact that its traditional industries–agriculture, forestry and mining–have been shedding labor for decades. The loss of mining jobs in the Upper Peninsula is particularly notable. The White Pine copper mine in Ontonagon at its peak in the mid-1970s employed over 3,000 workers; twenty years later it closed.

Marquette County’s Empire mine closure in 2016 resulted in the loss of 400 well-paying jobs. The state’s recent willingness to provide up to $50 million for the construction of the Copperwood Mine in the western UP attests to mining’s continued appeal as a job creator, despite its well documented boom and bust cycle. 

Job creation in the Upper Peninsula is further hampered by geography. Below the bridge, rural counties close to growing metro areas have experienced job gains, but the UP is unable to benefit from any spillover effects of metropolitan growth.

Moreover, its small dispersed population covers an area larger than Massachusetts, Connecticut and Rhode Island, making any benefits from agglomeration illusory. Jobs in the knowledge sector are a source of employment growth, but they are dependent upon access to a highly skilled labor force.
























And this presents a challenge for the region (Table 3). Only three counties (Houghton, Keweenaw and Marquette) have a higher percentage of adults over the age of 25 with a bachelor’s degree or higher, than the statewide figure of 31.5. In contrast, major metropolitan counties tend to exceed the state figure (e.g. Oakland County 49.5). 


Between 2006 and 2023 the Upper Peninsula lost nearly fifteen thousand jobs, a figure that is greater in percentage terms than other rural areas in the state and nation. Developing new sources of employment growth presents an enormous challenge for the region and rural areas in general.

Michigan Tech’s success in facilitating job creation is not a model that can be applied across the region given the UP’s dispersed population and current levels of educational attainment.

The UP’s other two universities could fulfill a similar role but it would require their adopting an entrepreneurial culture and a high level of specialization with the understanding that any job gains would occur sometime in the future and not be guaranteed.

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Michael Broadway

Michael Broadway is Professor of Geography and the former Dean of Arts & Sciences at Northern Michigan University. His research expertise focuses on the meatpacking industry’s community impacts. In 2006 he was a visiting Fulbright Research Chair in the Department of Rural Economy at the University of Alberta. He is a co-author with Donald Stull of Slaughterhouse Blues: The Meat and Poultry Industry in North America. (2nd edition 2011: Cengage). More recently he has published on a variety of food and drink related topics including food tourism, slow food and coffeehouses.


  1. Laurel Ramsey Kniskern on July 10, 2024 at 7:50 am

    Sobering numbers. Thanks for the clear data presentation.

  2. Tom Harris on July 10, 2024 at 8:11 am

    I think you’re confusing jobs with population or perhaps the desire to work. Jobs are available, nearly every business in the UP is looking for workers so the jobs are available but the workers are not. The reasons for this situation needs study but it’s not because no jobs are available.

    • Dirk Wierenga on July 10, 2024 at 12:33 pm

      The unfilled jobs you are mentioning are not about desire to work it’s about the need to offer full-time well paying jobs with benefits. Bottom line, people want to work but work needs to pay.

    • Edward Koller on July 10, 2024 at 4:35 pm

      All jobs are not created equal. I too lament the dearth of workers in service industies, but it is often not a living wage.

    • Chris Lucia on July 10, 2024 at 5:04 pm

      I was in Florida over the winter and asked a guest worker from Central America what they did in the summer. The answer- a McDonalds in the UP!

    • Dj on July 11, 2024 at 2:17 pm


    • Barbara Kramer on July 13, 2024 at 8:30 am


  3. Amber L. Duchaine on July 10, 2024 at 9:43 am

    Great article! I graduated from NMU, ‘06 and moved out of state in order to find work. I worked for local government in Workforce in Colorado for 10 years and this captures fantastic data of the issues in MI and rural areas and jobs! Rural areas in CO have similar issues. I’d like to see this data for CO.

  4. Bryce Elson on July 10, 2024 at 10:43 am

    Would be interesting to see how this compares to other similar states. Ohio, Wisconsin, come to mind. In Minnesota from 2019 to 2023 the urban areas had a loss of -0.05% of jobs, in rural areas -0.26%
    So overall , loss in both. I think by now the urban area is probably in the positive. But I suspect the rural is still in the red.

  5. Jon on July 10, 2024 at 12:32 pm

    A friend from East Lansing visited me last year and I took him for a ride around Sawyer and to see the B-52 and other military aircraft on display. He couldn’t believe that Sawyer isn’t bustling with more businesses and he said if Sawyer was anywhere near Lansing that developers would be fighting over the land to establish their businesses there. Traverse City invested in the old state mental hospital and turned it into apartments, stores, and restaurants that are all contributing to the local economy. The U.P. seems to be stuck in mining and wanting to keep things like they were. It’s going to take a major change in mindset for the people of the U.P. to start realizing that you have to look at investing in new areas and begin looking forward, not backward.

  6. Glen Miller on July 10, 2024 at 7:07 pm

    Very interesting article! Please keep them coming.

  7. Bah on July 11, 2024 at 10:06 pm

    I was wondering how the Ann Arbor data looks compared to these Michigan cities. No mention of A2 was a bit surprising

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