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Americans Aren't Moving

The decline in worker mobility presents a challenge for employers in a tight labor market.

​Marissa Coughlin had been looking for a job at a female-run tech company for quite a while. So she was thrilled when she received an offer from Textio three years ago.

However, there was a catch: The tech company is based in Seattle, while Coughlin and her partner lived in San Francisco.

"We had really long talks about it," says Coughlin, now senior director of communications and data insights at the augmented writing service. "I was really just so excited about the job, and we decided we could make it work."

On the other hand, there's a 31-year-old manager in El Paso, Texas, who was similarly elated last year when she was offered a position in San Antonio that came with more responsibility and a 40 percent raise. But she ultimately turned it down: Her husband had recently landed a job after a significant period of unemployment, and they decided he needed to stay put to strengthen his resume.

"It was disappointing," says the woman, who requested anonymity. "I guess it wasn't our time."

Finding the golden hour for a job relocation has never been more complicated. Largely gone are the days when a family trailed behind the male head of the household as he climbed the career ladder. Today's workforce is more populated with two-career couples, and moving so one partner can advance may result in stalling the other's trajectory.

That's hardly the only challenge. Members of the sandwich generation are juggling taking care of children and parents, and they often don't want to upset the carefully calibrated systems they've developed to manage both. Many young people are burdened with student debt and need to live with their parents to make ends meet. Meanwhile, the effects of the Great Recession linger in some regions. People still have underwater mortgages that are locking them in place or don't have the skills needed to apply for jobs elsewhere.

This unwillingness or inability to move is creating challenges for many employers as they face the tightest labor market in 50 years. Many companies, especially in manufacturing, are desperate for workers.

"It's never been harder to get people to move," says Brian Kropp, chief of research for the HR practice of Gartner Inc., a Stamford, Conn.-based consultancy. "You just can't offer money anymore. There are family and cultural considerations."

moving down



Staying Put

The U.S., once a country steeped in the lore of going west to find fame and fortune, has become much more stationary. Only 9.8 percent of residents in the U.S. changed their residences in 2018, down from 20 percent in 1985, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. It's the lowest rate since 1947, when the bureau began tracking mobility.

Almost half of the 1,300 people surveyed by The Federal Reserve Bank of New York in 2019 indicated that they were "rooted" and preferred to stay close to family and friends. Another 15 percent said they were "stuck" and couldn't afford to move. They often lack marketable skills that would make them attractive to potential employers. The survey results also found that people would require anywhere from 30 percent to 200 percent of their salary to move.

In the case of lower-wage workers in unskilled or semi-skilled jobs, "we don't have policies to accommodate their economic disruption," says Vince Cordova, principal and east region leader of mobility business at the consulting firm Mercer. Few companies have programs to retrain such workers, and they probably couldn't afford the move.

"They don't have a lot of excess funds and may rely on relatives for day care," for example, Cordova says. "Even if you paid them $20,000 more than what they make now, you could still put them in a place of economic hardship."

Why People Move (2018-19)

Moving Is Expensive

Relocation was once expected for ambitious men aiming for the C-suite in major companies. From the 1950s to the '80s, people joked that IBM stood for "I've Been Moved," a reference to how often employees there were uprooted for the sake of the company.

"It was a different era," says Ed Montoya, a San Francisco-based partner at the recruiting firm Calibre One. "Now we care more about work/life balance. We are more aware of the effects of relocating the family. It isn't a no-brainer anymore."

Only 29 percent of 668,000 online job applicants responded to ads that were outside of their metro area, according to a 2018 study by Glassdoor, an employer-review site. The study found that an extra $10,000 in base pay only raised the likelihood of a move by about half a percentage point.

Even if employees transfer to a new location with their current company, employers rarely buy transplants' homes anymore. Indeed, companies' relocation largesse has declined over the years and is typically reserved for very senior employees.

In the five years ending in 2018, the number of corporate-paid moves fell 17.6 percent to 216,850, according to the American Moving & Storage Association, an Alexandria, Va.-based trade group. Contributing, at least in part, was a change in the federal tax law in January 2018, which eliminated the business deduction for employer-paid moving expenses. Fewer than one-fifth of companies offer relocation benefits, according to a 2019 survey by the Society for Human Resource Management.


where people move

College graduates ages 25 to 34 are heading to these metropolitan areas:
Americans 55 and older are moving to the following places:
  1. Houston
  2. Denver
  3. Dallas
  4. Seattle
  5. Austin, Texas
  6. Charlotte, N.C.
  7. Portland, Ore.
  8. Riverside-San Bernardino, Calif.
  9. Phoenix
  10. Nashville, Tenn.
  11. Atlanta
  12. Columbus, Ohio
  13. Las Vegas
  14. Minneapolis
  15. Sacramento, Calif.
  16. Raleigh, N.C.
  17. San Francisco
  18. Jacksonville, Fla.
  19. Orlando, Fla.
  20. Kansas City, Mo.

  1. ​Phoenix
  2. Tampa-St. Petersburg, Fla.
  3. Riverside-San Bernardino, Calif.
  4. Las Vegas
  5. Jacksonville, Fla.
  6. Tucson, Ariz.
  7. Orlando, Fla.
  8. Sacramento, Calif.
  9. Miami-Fort Lauderdale-West Palm Beach
  10. Austin, Texas
  11. Charlotte, N.C.
  12. Dallas
  13. San Antonio
  14. Nashville, Tenn.
  15. Raleigh, N.C.
  16. Richmond, Va.
  17. Portland, Ore.
  18. Atlanta
  19. Birmingham, Ala.
  20. Oklahoma City
Source: Analysis of U.S. Census Bureau data, 2013-17 (released December 2018), by William Frey, Brookings Institution Metropolitan Policy Program.

The Impact of Remote Work

Not everyone is stuck. Advances in technology mean that more jobs can be done remotely, often eliminating the need for an employee to relocate. There's a growing number of virtual companies that don't even have physical offices.

Adam Nackers recently settled in Boise, Idaho, after he and his wife spent five years trying out different towns—an odyssey they could manage because both have jobs that allow them to work from any location. He's a marketing consultant, and she's a case-management nurse. They're both outdoorsy people, so they hopscotched through places such as Taos, N.M., and Newry, Maine, in search of their ideal location.

"We were able to choose because we have flexibility," Nackers says.

In this hyper-connected world, more people—especially Millennials—expect to be able to work from home, at least part of the time.

"That's their lifestyle," says Alexandra Clarke, director of recruiting at ForceBrands, a New York City-based search firm specializing in the consumer products industry.

Clarke says that 90 percent of her clients would be willing to pay to move someone for a senior role even though they'd rather not.

"It is costly to relocate somebody," she says. "I rarely see a client that over-extends themselves. It's not like employees are staying for 20 years anymore."




Paying for Talent

Employers are paying to relocate and increasing salaries when they must. Last year, musical instrument manufacturer Avedis Zildjian Co. couldn't find someone to manage its drum stick portfolio who already lived near the company, which is based outside of Boston, says Andrea Davenport, the director of human resources. Zildjian paid to relocate a drummer from the Midwest along with his wife and four children and offered a salary that was 35 percent more than budgeted to compensate him for Boston's higher cost of living.

To be sure, before employees even consider such a move, they're doing their research.

"They know the cost of housing, the cost of living. They say, 'You should pay me this much,' " Davenport says. "Sometimes we have jobs that are just unique to our business" and have no choice but to pay what it takes to attract talent.

Cordova recently had to add $78,000 to the $220,000 a year that a project manager was earning in his previous job to persuade him to move to New York City from Detroit.

New York isn't an easy place to live and work, but "some comers will make the sacrifice," Cordova says.

Bloomberg reported in August that New York City has the largest net exodus of people—277 people a day—more than double the exodus of 132 a year ago. Los Angeles and Chicago also had triple-digit losses, according to Bloomberg's analysis of Census Bureau data. Meanwhile, people were moving to cities such as Austin and Las Vegas where jobs are available and the cost of living is much lower.

Still, the Glassdoor survey found that San Francisco, New York and San Jose were the top three destinations for job seekers applying for roles in different cities. The benefit of moving to a big city is that there are more potential employers if the situation doesn't work out, experts say.

People will still move for jobs, depending on their age, the opportunity and their family situation, Montoya says. But "the bar is higher" he says, noting that companies are also more willing to make counter-offers to retain employees and avoid the expense of hiring someone new.

Of course, people can more easily be enticed to work at the headquarters of high-profile companies, such as Amazon, Facebook or Google, even though it means relocating to high-cost areas. "They are marquee names," Montoya explains. "They are great companies, and they pay well."  

Yet some people encounter sticker shock when they realize that despite a generous salary boost, they can afford a house only half the size they had before moving.

In some cases, people aren't moving as much because they don't need to. New York City may still be the country's financial capital, but there are also great banking opportunities in  cities such as Dallas and Charlotte, N.C. Silicon Valley may be tech's epicenter, but nowadays the industry giants have outposts all over, and new companies are sprouting up in cities where the sector previously had no presence. Boston is a health care mecca, although Nashville, Tenn., is home to many big companies, and start-ups are popping up in cities such as Fort Collins, Colo.

"Secondary cities are more popular," Clarke says. "The cost of living is lower, and there are opportunities in emerging industries."

Theresa Agovino is the workplace editor for SHRM.

What would entice you to move for a job?


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