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Mobility Is an Advantage in the Job Market — but Few Want to Move

by Chris Poindexter

Americans have a long tradition of packing up and moving to find better opportunities. Covered wagons streamed west in the early 1800s, packed with people willing to brave the hazards of the dusty trail in order to escape the harsh working conditions of the eastern cities. During the Dust Bowl of the 1930s, families held on as long as they could, before being forced to abandon farms swallowed by dust and children claimed by dust pneumonia and moving to California. Throughout our history, opportunity has belonged to those willing to strike out to new places; there is a tactical advantage in mobility.

As households transitioned to two incomes, job mobility fell off dramatically. Relocation didn’t involve finding one job, it meant finding two. Selling a home took longer and cost more; 6%-7% right off the top for the realtor, plus closing costs. Then there were moving expenses, and finding a home in a new and unfamiliar city and still more closing costs; buying or selling a home is expensive. Moving meant pulling kids out of school and taking them away from their friends. In the years prior to 2008, job mobility in America dropped to record low levels. The onset of the Great Recession pushed workplace mobility even lower, as families found they couldn’t sell homes underwater on value, even as they lost jobs in record numbers. Job mobility continued to decline in 2009 and 2010.

As the recession eased and housing prices rebounded, more people were finally able to sell their homes — and moving for employment started to pick up again. Millions of underwater homeowners simply abandoned their houses to bank foreclosures and, with one or more spouse already out of a job, moving wasn’t such a daunting prospect. Americans not only moved out of state, some moved out of the country, with Germany being the most popular destination.

Nearly half of Americans, 49%, say they’ve put off a move because of the recession.

A recent study by Mayflower, a moving and storage company, found that the average American moves six times in their adult lives. Those who adopt a mobile mindset early in life, rather than rushing to lock themselves into expensive homes and inflexible family situations, will have more opportunities for advancement. Yet our housing options, real estate market, and our attitudes toward moving for a job are completely at odds with that reality.

Almost anyone in a skilled trade or IT has a job waiting for them in North Dakota. If you can handle the winters, North Dakota needs to fill 20,000 jobs. The downside is the state doesn’t have the housing to support the labor pool, and now has some of the highest rents in the nation. Workers are living in church basements and garages, and Walmart parking lots have been turned into impromptu campgrounds. Even if a college-age person didn’t want to make a career there, it would be a great way to earn money over the summer if he or she had a place to stay.  Yet moving there permanently is both expensive and difficult.  Perhaps spending the advertising money on housing options would be a better option for state officials and local businesses that need workers.

Nearly half of Americans, 49%, say they’ve put off a move because of the recession. Now steadily falling unemployment has prompted employers to once again consider paying relocation expenses for top employees, and moving picked up in both 2012 and 2013.

Still, the number one reason for moving is finding a nicer neighborhood; another large segment of movers are older Americans contemplating a move to a retirement location. Getting people to move for a better job or more opportunity remains stubbornly difficult, with younger people in the 18-34 demographic being the most willing to consider moving for employment. Over half the people surveyed would rather go to the dentist than pack up to move; 15% would choose a root canal ahead of packing. While our ability to move has improved, our attitude toward mobility has not changed; most people would rather stay where they are and, if they’re going to move, it’s usually for a nicer home in the same area.

Ironically those moving today are, once again, likely to be moving west. The exception is Washington, DC, which had a net influx for the first time since 2009. Out west, Oregon and Nevada are the big winners, while West Virginia, New York, and Illinois were the places people were most likely to be leaving.

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