Ask Texas State Demographer Lloyd Potter what caught his attention in a recent release of census data for Texas cities, and he’ll tell you: Houston, in Harris County.
“In the past three or four years, prior to the [2015-16] set of estimates, Harris County was the most significant growing county in the country numerically,” he says.
People were moving to Houston from other parts of the country. Immigrants were moving there from other countries. But that changed last year when more people left Harris County than moved there from within the U.S.
“That was offset by immigration, so it had net positive migration, but that was because people were moving here from other countries,” he says.
Potter thinks it all has to do with the oil industry. He says a lot of U.S. citizens had moved to Houston to work in oil or related fields. When the price of oil went bust in 2014, they left.
It’s estimated that the oil bust cost Texans around 80,000 oil jobs. Other regions with economies linked to oil and gas have also seen population drops.
“No one here wants to hear this, [but] I think we’re seeing some slowdown,” says Steve Murdock, former director of the U.S. Census Bureau and current director of Rice University’s Hobby Center for the Study of Texas. “You go to Midland-Odessa, which is pretty much a town very much centered on a couple oil and gas industries, [and] you’re seeing substantial slowdown.”
Of course, in the last year oil prices have started to rebound, so demographers expect to see jobs and, by extension, population bounce back in the next round of census numbers.
But maybe not.
“The reality is that that hasn’t really happened to the degree that we would have expected,” says Michael McDonald, a professor of finance at Fairfield University who also consults for energy companies.
McDonald points out that one reason the industry has recovered is because it cut costs. It has done that, in part, by having computers and machines do the work people used to do. So even if the industry is back, the jobs might not be.
“We’ve seen that in particular both in the kind of high-end jobs, like say the petroleum engineering space,” he says, “and we’ve seen in sort of the more classic blue-collar workers, on the rigs and things like that.”
McDonald believes the full impact of automation on jobs and population will become clearer as the oil industry continues to recover.