Report details the pros and cons of living and working in MetroWest

May 7, 2011 – The MetroWest economy has changed greatly over the past two decades, but the latest data compiled by the MetroWest Economic Research Center suggests it’s debatable whether the region is better off.

The center’s annual economic profile, unveiled yesterday morning at the Sheraton Framingham, shows that residents of 13 MetroWest towns enjoy salaries that are more than double what they were 20 years ago.

Jobs are also more plentiful in the area, as the local economy shifts to growing industries such as research and development and health care.

But people may not be feeling quite as rich, thanks to the rising cost of living in the region and the lingering effects of the latest recession.

The Framingham State University-based center’s report represented data culled from state and federal agencies as well as research and surveys conducted by a team of professors and student interns. Called “Not Your Father’s MetroWest,” this year’s profile focuses especially on the economic and demographic changes in the region since 1991, the year the MetroWest Economic Research Center was formed.

Despite three national recessions in the past two decades, the region has maintained a climb – albeit one with peaks and valleys – by most economic data categories.

Job growth has outpaced the local labor force, making most towns in MetroWest net importers of workers from outside the immediate area. Even more significant, the total payroll for the area, at $11.3 billion by the most recent count in 2009, has nearly tripled.

Industry “supersectors” such as business and professional services and manufacturing – typically the highest-paying fields – have grown over that time as well. As a result, the average wage in the region has risen from $29,600 in 1990 to $64,900 in 2010.

“We are a high-wage region in a high-wage state,” said Maureen Dunne, a Framingham State professor and the center’s co-director. “But if you feel like you’re not making more money, you’re right – at best, we’re running in place.”

Negating the increase in pay has been a significant increase in the cost of living.

Apart from a few areas such as housing and utilities, most costs have risen – sometimes dramatically. A carton of orange juice that cost under $1 in 1991 now goes for $3.14. A trip to the doctor that was about $45 is $125 today.

Some economic factors, meanwhile, have remained stubbornly stagnant, most notably the unemployment rate. Thanks to a series of recessions and recoveries since 1991, unemployment in MetroWest has dipped at times but today hovers at just above 6 percent, practically the same as it was 20 years ago.

But the center’s report confirmed an overall changing face of MetroWest, as new companies, demographics and neighborhoods emerge.

“It’s goodbye to Wonderbread and Breyer’s, hello to EMC, Genzyme and Mathworks,” Dunne said.

The racial makeup of the region has changed as well, as residents identifying themselves in the latest 2010 census as Asian, Hispanic or more than one race surged, while the percentage of whites fell.

“The region is more diverse today than it was 20 years ago,” said Framingham State professor Martha Meaney, who is co-director of the research center. “And that’s a big change. It’s absolutely, definitely not your father’s MetroWest.”

The region is poised to continue its slow climb out of recession, according to the report, a rebound that will likely depend on the local economy’s move to promising industries such as science and technology, health care and education, as well as the strength of the private sector as a whole, which represents 90 percent of the region’s work force.

“But we have a long way to go to absorb about 9,000 unemployed, as well as new high school and college graduates,” Dunne said. “In summary, our MetroWest roller coaster is recovering. We are resilient, and we’ll have to be creative.”

This story originally appeared here