Ashley Young loved working in the metro-east, close to her Collinsville home, but the job didn’t really match her degree in health care administration.
A year ago, the 37-year-old mother of two became a complaints auditor for a health-insurance company in Maryland Heights, Missouri. Now she drives 45 minutes each way, five days a week.
“The opportunities for what I do are not available in the metro-east,” said Young, whose husband, Jeff, is pastor at First United Presbyterian Church in Collinsville. “Maybe at one of the hospitals. But honestly, the biggest factor was that I doubled my income.”
Young is one of many metro-east residents who feel they need to commute to St. Louis to reach their career potential. In some cases, they’re right.
Ryan Duncan, 32, of O’Fallon, teaches physical therapy at Washington University, the only institution in the region that offers a post-baccalaureate doctoral program in the field.
“Wash U is one of the premier institutions, and the physical-therapy program is rated No. 1 in the country, so it was an opportunity that was hard to pass up,” he said.
Jacob Benscoter, 33, of Belleville, works for a courier service in Maryland Heights. The former MetroLink security officer always has felt that St. Louis employers paid a little more and treated employees a little better than in the metro-east.
“When you’ve got a job you enjoy, and the pay is pretty good, the amount of time you have to travel doesn’t matter that much,” he said. “That’s how I look at it.”
Some 26.8 percent of 122,551 workers 16 and older in St. Clair County and 25.6 percent of 122,910 workers in Madison County work out of state, according to the 2016 American Community Survey by the U.S. Census Bureau.
To drive or not to drive?
Looking for a job in St. Louis is a smart move for some metro-east residents, but not all, according to hiring experts.
It depends on your interests, qualifications, lifestyle, goals, how much money you want to make and how much time you’re willing to spend in the car.
“It’s just a stone’s throw over the river, but you’ve got two kinds of candidate pools (in the metro-east),” said Erin Ziercher, St. Louis market manager for Robert Half, an international staffing agency.
“You’ve got the people who are willing to cross the river to make $5,000 to $8,000 more, and then you have people who are willing to take $5,000 or $8,000 less to work five minutes from home.”
Ziercher was referring to professional jobs, but a similar situation exists in clerical and customer service. Hourly wages range from $10 to $12 in Illinois and $12 to $14 in St. Louis, she said.
Big cities generally have more jobs available for people with higher skill and education levels. A large St. Louis-based corporation may keep three certified public accountants on staff while a small metro-east business only needs a bookkeeper.
“There’s definitely more hiring going on in the suburbs on both sides of the river (than in downtown St. Louis),” Ziercher said.
You’ve got the people who are willing to cross the river to make $5,000 to $8,000 more, and then you have people who are willing to take $5,000 or $8,000 less to work five minutes from home.
Erin Ziercher on metro-east candidate pools
The jobs landscape is a little different for manufacturing and industry workers. They used to make more money in St. Louis, but that has changed in recent years, said Bruce Perkes, Fairview Heights branch manager for the staffing agency Manpower.
People who run machinery, package products or work in warehouses can now earn just as much in the metro-east, he said. Hourly wages range from $10 to $12.
“The pay has caught up because of the need to get people to work in these jobs,” Perkes said.
Improved job market
Both Ziercher and Perkes report improvements in the overall St. Louis job market the past few years.
In the metro-east, Manpower went from having more applicants than jobs to more jobs than applicants. This allows it the luxury of not even handling those that pay minimum wage ($8.25).
This fall, the agency is struggling to find people for more than 100 available jobs that pay $10 an hour, Perkes said. He has even resorted to advertising on billboards.
“These are general labor, industrial and manufacturing jobs,” he said. “They’re entry-level jobs. Some are temporary. Some are seasonal.”
August unemployment rates in the St. Louis metro area have steadily decreased since a high of 10.4 percent in 2009, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. They dropped to 7.5 percent by 2012 and 4.9 percent by 2015.
This August’s rate was 4.1 percent in the metro area, 3.9 percent on the Missouri side, 4.9 percent on the Illinois side (factoring in the East St. Louis rate of 8.6 percent) and 5.1 percent in the city of St. Louis.
“More areas showed job gains in August, but the pace of growth is not where we would like it to be,” said Jeff Mays, director of the Illinois Department of Employment Security, in a press release, referring to the state as a whole.
“While it is encouraging that unemployment rates declined from last year, most areas in Illinois are still higher than the national average.”
Region’s top employers
The No. 1 employer in the St. Louis metro area is BJC HealthCare with 28,351 employees as of May 2017, according to The List, an annual report by the St. Louis Business Journal. That covered medical facilities in Illinois and Missouri.
BJC now has 31,000 employees because of its “strategic affiliation” with Memorial Regional Health Services in Belleville and Shiloh. About 8,200 live in the metro-east. Commuting goes both ways.
“We have lots of opportunities in lots of locations, and we want to find the right fit,” said Andrea Lampert, vice president of talent strategies. “We don’t specify, ‘You have to live in Illinois or Missouri to get this job.’”
Other Top 10 employers are Walmart with 22,290 employees, Washington University with 15,818, SSMHealth with 14,926, Mercy with 14,195, Boeing with 14,000, Scott Air Force Base with 13,000, Schnucks with 9,956, AT&T with 9,000 and the Archdiocese of St. Louis with 8,780, according to The List.
About 1,500 of Boeing’s employees live in the metro-east, including those based at MidAmerica St. Louis Airport in Mascoutah.
Communications Manager Philip Carder lives in Troy and commutes to his corporate job near St. Louis Lambert International Airport.
“It depends on what’s happening on 270, but if there’s no accident, I can usually get (to the office) in about 40 minutes,” he said.
Boeing’s effect on the Illinois job market goes beyond its metro-east employees. The company buys $1 billion in supplies and services from 500 businesses in the state, supporting an estimated 32,000 direct and indirect jobs, Carder said.
“It really comes down to the best candidate for each position,” Carder said.
Bucking the trend
BJC isn’t the only employer that entices St. Louisans to cross the river for jobs, although Census Bureau statistics, as well as rush-hour bridge traffic, show its lopsidedness the other way.
Only 2.3 percent of 489,471 workers 16 and older in St. Louis County work out of state, according to the 2016 American Community Survey.
The Top 5 employers in southwest Illinois as of May 2016 were Scott Air Force Base with 13,002 employees, Memorial Regional with 2,725, Southern Illinois University Edwardsville with 2,372, Anderson Hospital with 1,190 and Walgreens with 1,000, according to The List.
“Eighty-three percent of current SIUE employees live in the metro-east, and 12 percent live in the St. Louis area,” said Phillip Brown, director of institutional research. “Almost all of those who live in St. Louis are faculty and professional staff.”
Nearly 1,000 SIUE employees are civil service, which requires them to live in Illinois or move to Illinois within 180 days of being hired.
Scott Air Force Base also employs Missouri residents, but it doesn’t keep track of how many, according to Christie Sparger, community engagement specialist.
“Normally, we just say our personnel live in the greater St. Louis metropolitan area,” she said.
Finding the right opportunity
A recent Robert Half report lists the Top 5 factors people consider when deciding where to seek or accept employment. The first is compensation, including benefits and perks, not just salaries.
Taxes can play a part. Illinois recently bumped up its flat income-tax rate from 3.75 to 4.95 percent. Missouri’s rate is 6 percent for anyone earning $9,000 a year or more.
“If you work in the city of St. Louis, there’s a 1-percent earning tax,” Ziercher said. “That’s something on people’s minds, but it’s typically not a deal-breaker.”
The other four deciding factors are “corporate culture,” referring to a company’s reputation as a good or bad employer; career path or opportunity for advancement; cost of living; and commute.
The latter could be affected by availability, convenience and cost of public transportation.
“I did take MetroLink for a while because Wash U provides a pass, and that was great,” Duncan said. “But then we had kids, and it was nice to have a car in case anything happened unexpected and I needed to get home.”
Another commuting-related question is whether employees can work at home during inclement weather or adjust schedules to pick up kids from school or avoid high-traffic times.
During her job search, Young found that St. Louis companies seemed to be more flexible overall.
“The jobs in the metro-east were more like you have to clock in and clock out,” she said. “They weren’t the professional-salaried positions.”
Opportunity for advancement was paramount when Greg Schadegg, 40, of Belleville, began job-hunting in St. Louis. He had worked in metro-east construction, sales and truck driving, but he wanted something in the financial industry.
Schadegg was able to climb the corporate ladder at A.G. Edwards and later Stifel Nicolaus & Co. and now is an anti-money-laundering analyst.
“I didn’t want to get maxed out in a mid-level position (at a local bank or investment branch),” he said. “I wanted to keep growing and advancing my career.”