Where Are the Workers Coming From? Components of Population Change in Utah

By Ben Crabb, Regional Economist

In terms of jobs and job growth, Utah has weathered the COVID-19 pandemic better than most states. For the 25 months spanning February 2020, just before the pandemic hit, through March 2022, Utah added more than 80,000 jobs and a 5.1% growth rate — the highest in the nation. During the same time period, the nation, as a whole, experienced a 0.7% jobs contraction. 

As the pandemic’s economic effects wane, a central issue now facing employers nationwide is the limited availability of labor. Unemployment rates in many areas are near historic lows and the ratio of job openings to unemployed workers is historically high. Despite these headwinds, the Utah economy continues to find workers and add jobs. While some workers are those returning to the labor force after a temporary separation, many others are new arrivals to Utah. Still others are young workers aging into the labor market for the first time. These labor pipelines are important fuel for Utah’s economic expansion. 

For a better understanding of change in the state’s population and labor force components, this article takes a closer look at trends in domestic and international migration, along with the state’s natural increase (births minus deaths) over the last decade or so. Also examined are components of population change in a few counties to appreciate patterns of local variation driven by differences in demographics, geography, and industrial specialization.

Components of population change: natural increase & migration

Population change is often recorded as a single number or percentage reflecting total gain or loss over a period of time. Either variable represents the sum of several components of change. These components include “natural increase,” which is the residual between births minus deaths, and “net migration,” which is new arrivals minus those leaving. An overview of these concepts follows.

Natural increase

Utah’s rate of natural increase has long been at or near the highest percentage in the nation. This is due to its high fertility rate. However, the state’s fertility rate has been declining at a faster pace than the country’s average in recent years (Figure 1). A declining fertility rate has been a long-time feature of both the U.S. and Utah, and also characterizes the trend in most of the developed world for the last century. As fertility rates decline, eventually the next generation of workers will be less than the previous generation unless in-migration fills the void. 

Declining Fertility Rates 

Figure 1: Fertility rates in Utah and the nation. Utah's fertility rate has fallen below the replacement level in recent years. Source: National Center for Health Statistics.

Utah’s rate of natural increase is still positive. But Utah’s population is aging, with the median age rising to 31.1 in the Census Bureau’s latest 2016-2020  American Community Survey (ACS), up from 28.8 ten years earlier (Figure 2). While Utah’s population is still relatively young, and significantly younger than the nation’s, the trend toward an older populace raises challenges in the long term, especially at the national level. With fewer workers available, who will supply the labor to ensure that necessary services are maintained? With more retirees, how will commerce demand be met with fewer workers contributing to economic production? Technological advancements should provide some of the solution by allowing more output per worker, but technological advancements do not buy houses, cars and healthcare, etc. Advancing economic and social prosperity still depends primarily on employing human labor and the availability of people to work jobs, buy products and support existing infrastructure.

Increasing median age

Figure 2: Median age for Utah and the nation. Utah's median age has risen faster than the nation's in recent years.

Migration: domestic and international

The second major component of population change is migration, or the geographic movement of people across country or state or county boundaries to establish new residences. Demographers and economists are particularly interested in net migration, a measure of how many people moved into an area after subtracting the number of people moving out. Positive net migration indicates the area is gaining population through the movement of people, while negative net migration indicates population loss as more people are moving out than moving in. 

Migration can be further broken down by geographic categories, for example, whether people are moving within a country (domestic migration) or between countries (international migration). We use these domestic and international migration categories in this article as they are included in the Census Bureau’s data products

America’s growth has long been fueled by international in-migration, but the rate of immigration to the country has declined significantly in recent years. As noted above, the country’s fertility rate has been declining for many years. With these two population components now constrained, many states are finding that their biggest source of population flux — either gains or losses — is coming through the domestic migration component. This is certainly the case in Utah. Situated in the sunny west, Utah has been a net beneficiary of the general U.S. population’s westward shift. In the COVID era, domestic migration to Utah picked up dramatically to comprise the biggest part of its population growth.

In the figures below, we use data from the US Census Population Estimates Program (https://www.census.gov/programs-surveys/popest/about.html) to better understand the sources of Utah’s population growth over time, and ultimately its labor force expansion. 

In the graphs that follow, the yearly bars indicate population flux from July 1 of the previous year to July 1 of the labeled year. For example, the 2021 bar indicates population change from July 1 2020 to July 1 2021. As such, 2021’s numbers are the first on the graphs that fully reflect the impact of the COVID pandemic that started in March 2020.

National context of population change

The U.S. as a whole has been experiencing a general decline in the “natural increase” of population change for decades. In the last two years this trend has accelerated with the addition of a million COVID deaths. But it is not just COVID deaths that are the cause. National deaths are increasing as the baby boomers age, and deaths are soon to outpace births. Compounding the nation’s population growth slowdown, the level of international migration has declined significantly in recent years. Sum it up, and the national level of population growth fell to a historic low in 2021:

United States: Components of population change

Figure 3: United States components of population change

Note the reduction in international migration in Figure 3. After peaking in 2015-2016, international migration has been shrinking due to declining immigration and increasing emigration of the foreign born. These changes are attributable in part to changes in national immigration policy, as well as restrictions on migration associated with the COVID pandemic. International migration is strongly influenced by policy decisions and is thus a malleable constraint, albeit subject to the currents of national policy decision-making. (In contrast, a country has relatively few tools at its disposal to boost the rate of natural increase, though some places have tried.)

Adding up the effects of decreasing immigration and a declining rate of natural increase, the US population experienced close to zero growth (0.1%) in 2021 for the first time in the nation’s history.

Utah’s trends in the components of population change 

In Utah, the proportion of total population change consisting of natural increase (births minus deaths) has been decreasing in recent years. However, the state’s population continues to boom largely due to high levels of in-migration. In particular, the domestic migration from other states has increased substantially in recent years. International migration on the other hand has been declining, mirroring the nationwide trend.

Utah: Components of population change

Figure 4: Utah components of population change

Of note in Figure 4 is the huge jump in domestic migration to Utah in 2021, an influx at least

partly attributable to the COVID pandemic. Increased teleworking and a movement out of big
cities in nearby states seems to have been a boon to Utah’s population. The data paint a
compelling portrait of a state that was a net recipient of people moving in from other states
during the COVID era.

So where are Utah’s workers coming from?

While Utah has been the recipient of significant new residents through domestic in-migration,
other states are losing people to domestic out-migration. The country’s most populated state,
California, is close to Utah and has been losing people to domestic out-migration for years,
with that trend accelerating in recent years.

California: Components of population change

Figure 5: California components of population change

Plausible contributing factors to California’s increased out-migration include the state’s high cost of living, which has been a factor for years. In the COVID era, the increase in remote work and the presence of onerous state-level public health restrictions likely contributed to people’s decisions to leave the state. 

We can tease out a bit more about the origin states of domestic migrants to Utah using two
additional Census Bureau sources. The first is a dataset that tabulates state-to-state flowsof people based on their place of residence from one year to the next. The latest available
year for this state-to-state flows data is 2019. The top ten states for domestic in-migration to
Utah in 2019 are shown in Table 1:

The second data source is “Job-to-Job Flows” (J2J) from the Census Bureau’s “Longitudinal Employer-Household Dynamics” (LEHD) program. J2J data tracks worker job reallocations in the U.S. It facilitates a better understanding of the worker flows across industries, employers, and labor markets. Job-to-job data on worker churn are updated on a quarterly basis, with the latest release covering the first quarter of 2021. 

The most recent job-to-job flows tell a similar story, with California again being the largest single state source of domestic migration to Utah:

County population change

Now that we have a better understanding of population component change at the national and state levels, let’s turn our attention to a few of Utah’s counties to appreciate internal population variations within the state. 

Note that in county-level assessments, domestic migration can refer to movement from either a different state or from a different county in Utah. The Census data we’re working with does not account for in-state county-to-county migration. 

A few notable examples of county-level population dynamics over the last ten years are featured below.

Consistent and increasing population growth: Washington County

Washington County, home to St. George, has been among the country’s fastest growing local economies for several years. Looking at that county’s population change components, we see that it has a rapidly-growing number of domestic in-migrants. In recent years that magnitude has dwarfed the size of natural increase. In 2020, domestic migration accounted for 6,300 new residents while natural increase only contributed 700 newbies. In 2021, domestic migration added 9,200 residents and natural increase contributed 237.

Washington County: Components of population change

Figure 6: Washington County components of population change

Sudden population growth: Cache County

Cache County saw a remarkable increase in domestic migration in 2021 (July 1 2020 – July 1 2021). While we cannot definitively attribute this to pandemic-related migration, the big boost in 2021 is likely related to flow of people out of larger city areas and toward more rural regions whose appeal had increased due to increased teleworking, reduced cost of living, and a pandemic-era curtailment of the cultural amenities that urban regions usually offer. Whether the large increase marks the beginning of a trend remains to be seen, but the new residents offer a welcome labor source for Cache County’s very tight labor market.

Cache County: Components of population change

Figure 7: Cache County components of population change

Population swings related to industrial concentration: Uintah County

Uintah County is in the heart of Utah’s oil and gas producing region. With this industrial dependence comes some vulnerability to population swings related to that industry’s fortunes. The price of oil crashed in 2014-2016, and the big outflow of people from Uintah County in 2016-2017 was an echo effect as oil drilling fell and employers laid off workers

Today, with gas prices high and rising beginning in early 2020, there are economic incentives for increased domestic oil and gas production. Uintah County’s employment levels have likewise been rising, and if high gas prices persist in the long run, expect to see domestic in-migration to Uintah County increase in the years ahead to fill jobs in the oil and gas industry.

Uintah County: Components of population change

Figure 8: Uintah County components of population change

Declining growth: Salt Lake County

Overall population growth in Salt Lake County peaked in 2016 when over 18,000 new residents were added. Since then, it has begun a trend of domestic out-migration coupled with decreasing international in-migration and a diminishing natural increase. Indeed, in 2021, the county’s net population growth was essentially nil. COVID surely exacerbated the population trends in 2021, contributing to an increase in deaths and domestic out-migration, so time will tell whether 2021 was an outlier or part of an overall trend.

Salt Lake County’s 2021 domestic migration outflow counter-mirrors the domestic migration inflow in Cache County (Fig. 7), reflecting a trend of people moving out of larger urban areas towards rural and suburban areas during the COVID era. 

Also notable is the international migration component. Urban and metropolitan areas, with their high levels of cultural and economic diversity, tend to have proportionally higher levels of international in-migration than do rural regions. In Salt Lake County, the level of international migration peaked in 2017 and has declined precipitously since. In a context of declining natural increase and domestic outmigration, the international migration component holds particular importance for urban counties like Salt Lake.

Salt Lake County: Components of population change 

Figure 9: Salt Lake County components of population change

Final Remarks

There are a number of factors contributing to Utah’s resilient economic performance during the COVID era, including youthful demographics, a well-diversified economy, as well as being the beneficiary of American population movements toward sunnier western states. Utah’s relatively less restrictive COVID actions compared to nearby California has also likely contributed to an influx of people from that state. 

At its foundation, Utah’s rebound from the COVID downturn was fueled by labor availability. But as the state’s fertility rate declines and its “natural increase” component eventually shrinks, a need for labor growth from domestic migration will increase. Not included in this article are numerous factors that play into people’s decisions to move from one state to another, such as tax rates, job opportunities, housing costs, and quality of life concerns like schools and natural amenities. Given recent trends in the components of population change, Utah’s appeal as an in-migration destination is positive, but it will be a worthy topic for state and county policy makers to monitor as time progresses.

Additional Links:

United States Population Change

Utah Counties Population Change