Closing the Perception Gap: Dispelling Midwest Myths

The upcoming TrustBelt Conference is aimed at shaking up perceptions of the Midwest. But what are those assumed presumptions and what’s the actual story?

Sophia Koropeckyj, a managing director at Moody’s Analytics, will share trends and economic indicators that tell the true story of the Midwest during her keynote speech, Closing the Perception Gap, on Monday, June 1 at 10:30 a.m.

Koropeckyj has studied the economics of the Midwest for over 20 years. Someone with such a deep knowledge of the region, and many other Midwesterners who are flourishing in their own right, might not believe the national media’s portrayal of the region, but Koropeckyj shares and refutes the misconceptions most often heard.

Flyover states and the Rust Belt are often used to reference to the region. While the Midwest went through major changes in the manufacturing industry, “People say nothing is made in the U.S. anymore,” Koropeckyj says. “That’s a gross misrepresentation.” 

Manufacturing peaked in the late 70s and flatlined from the 80s to 2000 before taking a nosedive. From 2000 to 2009, manufacturing jobs went from four million to two and a half million.

Since the nine years of decline, manufacturing has rebounded with 364,000 jobs.

“We have had this very important revival but hardly enough to replace the losses,” Koropeckyj explains. However, the discrepancy comes from the fact that manufacturing is so much more productive than it was 10 to 20 years ago.

“We make a lot and we make it much better than we used to make it,” Koropeckyj says. Automation and efficiency improvements mean plants require fewer workers. With this shift comes a change in a worker’s skill set, with individuals needing proficiency in computers and other sophisticated equipment. Jobs in distribution, warehousing and construction trades can help close the employment gap for individuals with manufacturing backgrounds.

Another misconception Koropeckyj addresses is that everyone is leaving the Midwest.

“Population is not declining,” she says. “It continues to grow.” However, this growth comes with some caveats. Growth is different than attracting people to the region.

Since the recession, fewer people have been leaving the region (more people still leave than come in) but, a growing immigrant population has kept the region from decline.

“It is able to attract a lot of international migrants,” Koropeckyj says of the Midwest. Immigrants tend to come to areas where communities are already established in the region. For example, Chicago has a large Polish population and Detroit attracts immigrants from Arab nations.

“There are jobs there,” Koropeckyj says. “They can find work.”

To put it in perspective, the U.S. population growth was 0.8 percent in 2014, compared to 0.1 percent in the Great Lakes states. This weak growth comes with some interesting implications.

Weak population growth means weak labor force growth which means a tight labor market with low unemployment.

“The number of job openings has absolutely surged,” Koropeckyj says. “It means that we are likely to see stronger wage growth. If you combine the stronger wage growth with very low living costs in the Midwest, it’s a good place to be. It should keep more people from leaving.”

Of the available jobs, Koropeckyj says about 47 percent are mid-wage jobs, meaning the opportunity to really build a middle class. There are jobs in healthcare and manufacturing and professional services. Tech growth is also strong, second only to the West.

While the Midwest is home to some struggling rural areas, the region is peppered with several bright spots. Ann Arbor and Grand Rapids are thriving. Tech is growing in cities like Chicago, Kansas City and Indianapolis. And with its steadily growing population, “Columbus is really an exceptional area in the Midwest,” Koropeckyj says. Growth in different industries has meant quality jobs in the city.

“Columbus has done phenomenally well,” she adds.

For more information on the TrustBelt Conference, visit