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The Great Migration of Workers

Companies must understand how a shift in workforce development and remote work will impact their location decisions.

Workforce Q4 2022
“Now Hiring” — the sign that we see across the country, from main street to downtown to the county road. This sign now seems to be a permanent fixture in windows of small and large businesses alike. Competing billboards along the highway shout to us from the roadside why you should consider working for “company A” as we read the same reasons that the last three billboards gave for their respective companies. Online advertisements and virtual recruiters constantly let us know of the opportunities just on the other side of the cyber fence. The workforce issue has always been around; however, the pandemic and further economic impacts since then have accelerated this shift in the last few years.

What can we discern in the now years since the pandemic? Prior to 2020, wages were in a price war to try to keep employees from moving from one location to another down the street. In 2022, employers continue to struggle with keeping employees interested in coming to work, especially in the office. What are the drivers for migrating away from a current employer? Where are people going? What are prospective employees seeking? Let’s dive into the various forces that are influencing the workforce today and subsequently the employers and communities so desperate to find (and retain) them.

Despite the disruptions of the pandemic, 2020 was a pivotal year — knowing it was also a census year. As a result, we can dig into data provided on a decade basis as a starting point for further analysis. In March of 2022, the U.S. Census bureau produced a report noting the migration patterns of people within the United States. This data is produced at the county level, so you see a significant amount of “hot spot” data for inference purposes.

When comparing the data migration patterns from 2019–2020 and 2020–2021, there are several notable differences. The 2019–2020 migration data (i.e., pre- and early pandemic months) indicates movements from “rural” areas to more suburban areas. Metro areas noted the largest increases in population, though not all these increases occurred in a “downtown core” (centralized, urban county). Surrounding urban areas appealed to many people due to amenities, job opportunities, and available supply of housing options. This data appears to indicate a move toward places that offered more due to the convenience and proximity of the urban core, though life in the urban core was not as sought after.

The largest increases in net migration patterns appeared to be the suburban areas around urban “cores.” The data changes substantially in 2020–2021 (mid-pandemic to waning pandemic months). Core urban areas, especially in the North and East/West coasts, and in the Midwest and South, saw some of the largest decreases due to net migration patterns. The largest increases in net migration patterns appeared to be the suburban areas around urban “cores,” and these increases were weighted toward areas in the South and Midwest. According to the data, the state of Florida saw some of the highest increases in net migration, taking four spots out of the top 10 largest migration net increases. The largest decrease areas were New York-Newark, San Francisco-Oakland, Los Angeles, Seattle, and Washington, D.C.-Baltimore.

However, this data does not tell us “who” was making these transitions. Further analysis needs to be done to sort out the timing of this information too: were these migration patterns unique to this time? For example, does the data reflect retirees seeking to capitalize on the white-hot housing market, trying to get the best bang-for-their-buck and move to their retirement home? Or were these patterns indicative of the closures of higher education institutes and travel opportunities and the movement of young people back “home”?

For further insights into the “who” we can look at other data produced by a unique source: moving and storage companies. Extra Storage Space notes that all age demographics participated in the movements during and after the pandemic, from young professionals to retirees. A Pew Research study noted that nearly one in four people in 2020 moved or knew someone who moved due to the pandemic environment. However, of that population, over a third of the moves were made by young people aged 18–29. While the pandemic possibly had a stronger migration influence on young people, the data still notes participation from all age levels. Therefore, with the population shifting during this time, what were the main drivers for these decisions to move?

Several studies of this time note the prevailing factor for moving was the cost of living. Communities and campuses that closed due to the pandemic could not provide the long-term financial security that people rely on. As the economy struggled through the mid- and late-pandemic months, many people could not afford to stay in the places they were, so they started to look for areas where their dollar would go farther.

As the economy struggled, many people could not afford to stay in the places they were, so they started to look for areas where their dollar would go farther. This was especially impactful on young families due to the costs of childcare or the absence of options for childcare and the requirement for a caregiver to stay home. notes the average cost of childcare for a household in America is $175/week for a four-year-old or 13.9 percent of the median household income (across the United States). Some states have much higher costs associated with childcare and a greater impact on a family’s budget. With increases in costs like this for the working-class family and an uncertain future, many families looked to move “home” to be nearer other family members who could support them.

Simultaneously, the great migration saw a necessary and, in many cases, mandated requirement for remote work. Many businesses had to quickly adapt working models to accommodate this new factor. As the pandemic began to subside, many workplaces maintained the remote policies created in one fashion or another. However, with the rise of remote work options, working professionals could also benefit from flexibility in location. If employees can work from anywhere, why not be in a place that benefits your wallet the most!

Not all moves were just for families — many areas that saw migration growth were outside of historically large urban areas to smaller suburban communities, even rural areas. Individuals and families, according to real estate, finance, and moving companies like Zillow, BankRate, and, were looking for more space and the ability to stretch their dollar.

Communities that saw the largest net migrations bring some common amenities and features. Outdoor activities were on the rise during and following the pandemic as indoor spaces were shut down or severely restricted in capacity. Areas for year-round outdoor activities naturally occur more in the Sunbelt states. Other states that saw increases include Tennessee, the Carolinas, Utah, Idaho, Montana, and Arizona — all states known for adventurous recreation and support of the scenic outdoors. Areas that provided options and a better cost of living saw the benefits of an increase in population.

Another force that drove the migration from larger urban areas included crime. Urban areas will inherently see a larger percentage of crime due to population densities. Statistics highlight the increases in crime across the country, especially in urban areas over the last two to three years. Families and individuals want to feel safe within their community, and if the community cannot offer that, they will find a better opportunity.

With a better understanding of the forces that migrated people to different areas during and post-pandemic, what can be done by employers and communities to attract the attention of workers who are open to the idea of changing location?

Employers will need to assess whether they can accommodate a worker in another area of the state or even the country to fill talent shortages. Employers have felt and will continue to feel the incredible balancing act of offering flexibility while still maintaining a strong workplace culture. How do you bridge the two? For some employers, a flexible “in-office” schedule or an entirely remote option is advisable. As long as the work is getting done and productivity is maintained, many employers have embraced a lighter in-person workplace. This is beneficial for workers within professional or service industries.

Employers in areas that have seen a decrease in employees may have to look for workers who are not within traditional “reach.” Employers will need to assess whether they can accommodate a worker in another area of the state or even the country to fill talent shortages. While technology can expand the reach of some tasks to remote settings, many still seek to be a part of their workplace culture and community. Employers must be willing to offer flexibility (to the degree they can) and at the same time offer a workplace that people want to be a part of. Otherwise, employers will struggle to fill roles and retain top talent.

Alternatively, many businesses, such as manufacturers and retail operations, will always need in person operations due to fixed location tasks, such as running equipment or serving a customer. Hospital workers need to be at the hospital to perform surgeries and deliver direct medical care. Employers in these settings continue to struggle with maintaining optimal workforces at optimal levels. When employees are not available or present, there are significant pushes toward automation or reductions in services. For these employers, company benefits continue to be flexed to maintain workforce buy-in. However, as these expenses continue to increase, the costs will be pushed to the consumer, which, in turn, dictates what they are ultimately willing to pay for and at what time.

Similarly, employers may need to consider alternative workforce pools, such as retirees, employees with little to no experience, and the disabled community. Flexibility will be even more important in these employment pools as retirees will likely not want full-time working hours. Young employees may not be able to bring the experience needed to do more complex tasks; therefore, employers will be required to consider tasks that can be done and shift roles and responsibilities appropriately. The disabled community can also bring a tremendous amount of opportunity to employers who can accommodate needs, be they mobility or other support services. In all cases, employers placing expectations from just a few years ago on this new workforce will likely continue to struggle finding and maintaining employees. Flexibility on both employers and prospective and current employees will be critical to meeting the challenges presented in the modern workforce environment.

Communities’ Role
Communities and their economic development partners will play a pivotal role in attracting and maintaining workers who are open to moving. As described before, workers today are allowed more flexibility from an employment location standpoint, so they are actively choosing where to live based on what the area offers, and not just from an occupational standpoint. Family-friendly options and amenities are key drivers for many moves. Communities need to ask themselves: Communities and their economic development partners will play a pivotal role in attracting and maintaining workers who are open to moving.
  • What are we doing to invest in infrastructure to support this shift?
  • Are we taking active steps to upgrade communication and fiber infrastructure to support remote work?
  • Are we investing or supporting downtown areas or unique districts that give community flavor?
  • How are we working with first responders and non-governmental agencies to address crime and problem areas?
  • Are we reviewing zoning and master plan documents (from 15 years ago) to anticipate future growth needs in housing, business, and industrial areas?
  • How are we making it easier to do business within our community by streamlining processes and cutting red tape?
  • What creative incentive options could we explore to attract new businesses and workers to our community?
  • Do we have a regular business retention and expansion program and are we executing on it?
There are many factors communities and businesses do not have direct control over: the economy, inflation, criminal activities, just to name a few. However, there are opportunities that can be explored and enacted in the short term to impact longer-term outcomes. Communities and businesses must come together to work through these complex problems and the first step is openly reviewing the issues at hand. By collaborating on problem areas, people — community leaders, business owners, and the employees and families who live there — can share ideas and invest wisely in new initiatives that position themselves for the best opportunities. This workforce migration issue and opportunity will not disappear overnight, but with solid planning and collaboration, communities can begin to make an impact and move in the right direction.

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