Tech Talent May be Shifting Away From Superstar Cities

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Higher costs of living appear to be pushing some tech talent out of coastal cities.

In recent years, America has increasingly been defined by a winner-take-all geography, with coastal superstar cities like New York, Los Angeles, Seattle, and Washington, D.C., garnering a disproportionate share of high-tech startups, corporate headquarters, and innovation and talent. But surging costs and inequality in these places—elements of what I call the New Urban Crisis—may be shaping the beginnings of a shift in talent to other parts of the country.

That’s the upshot of the newly released 2019 Talent Attraction Scorecard from Emsi, a company that analyzes labor-market data. This edition of the scorecard covers America’s 3,000-plus counties, breaking out the data for three types: big counties (with more than 100,000 people), small and medium-size counties (with between 5,000 and 100,000 residents), and very small, micro-counties (with fewer than 5,000 people). The analysis is based on Emsi’s Talent Attraction Index, which is comprised of six key metrics: job growth, skilled job growth, net migration, annual openings for skilled workers (per capita), educational attainment growth (based on adults with associate degrees and above), and a broad measure of regional competitiveness.

Among big U.S. counties, eight of the top 10 are not superstar places, including Duval County—encompassing Jacksonville, Florida—and Denton County, Texas. Duval County is home to distribution centers for Amazon and Wayfair. Most of the leading big counties are part of larger Sunbelt metros where housing is relatively affordable.

The report also notes the solid performance of large counties in the West—in states such as Colorado, Idaho, Utah, and Oregon. Some of these counties appear to be benefiting from the movement of talented workers from high-cost cities like San Francisco and Seattle.

The same general pattern comes through for smaller and medium-sized counties. Topping this ranking is Cameron County in Louisiana, followed by two counties in Georgia. Three Texas counties appear further down the list.

Many of these smaller talent attractors have enjoyed strong growth in energy-related industries. But it is still surprising to see two counties located in older, deindustrializing parts of Ohio and West Virginia in this top 10. Emsi notes:

In 2018, Jackson and Holmes sat far down in the rankings, well into the thousands. This year, they each leapt well over a thousand places into the top 10. Holmes is the overall leader for net migration of the small counties, and its remote workers have an 8.3% share of its total workforce (compared to the national average, just over 4%). Jackson, on the other hand, has nearly doubled both its jobs and its workforce participation in the last five years, and increased its skilled jobs by almost half—no mean feat in a region famously struggling to meet the challenges posed by job loss and industry change.

Moving on to micro-counties, the talent-attraction stars are in Nevada, Montana, Nebraska, and California. Storey County, Nevada, home of the Tesla Gigafactory 1, ranks first. A number of these counties have been able to attract a high proportion of remote workers. And many of these places, Emsi notes, offer natural beauty and a more laid-back lifestyle.

Small counties with high percentages of remote workers include McPherson County, Nebraska (one-fifth of the workforce), Alpine County, California (14 percent); and Liberty County, Texas (9 percent).

While some of these percentages may reflect the way census data and surveys are structured, the consistent presence of higher-than-average remote workforces in Western metros lends substance to the trend, an Emsi researcher told CityLab in an email.

Heartland and Sunbelt counties dominate the scorecard, but a number of coastal superstar areas perform well on certain metrics. Seattle’s King County ranks among the top 10 talent-attraction leaders. Los Angeles County ranks high in skilled job openings. Kings County, New York (Brooklyn) tops the list for overall regional competitiveness.

Superstar cities and knowledge hubs continue to have the deepest absolute pools of talent. But what appears to be happening in those places is a kind of Darwinian sorting, in which high housing costs push out less advantaged and skilled workers. The Emsi scorecard suggests that America may be reaching an inflection point in the geography of talent.

It’s not the only analysis to suggest as much. A 2019 Coldwell Banker Global Luxury/WealthEngine report identified Traverse City, Michigan, as the nation’s number-one location for Millennial millionaires (based on their share of the population).

The big knowledge and tech hubs which once had such a stranglehold on attracting talent seem to be losing their allure. Many places around the country now have bundles of amenities—renovated old buildings, coffee shops and good restaurants, music venues, and not least of all, more affordable homes—that can compete with the biggest cities. In other words, the amenity gap between superstar cities and other places has closed, while the housing-price gap has widened.

After a couple of decades of winner-take-all urbanism, talent may be shifting away from the established superstars to less expensive places, large and small, urban and rural.

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