Workforce Insights: So long big city! Handling a pandemic often means calling the movers

Written by George Anders. Read the full article here.

In the 1800s, legendary newspaper editor Horace Greeley told Americans to "go west." But this year, professional mover Bobby Burke is making an excellent living by helping Californians move east.

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic took hold in March, the high cost of living in cities such as San Francisco was nudging people out. Now, Burke says, the exodus from California is broadening. Practically every week, he's taking command of a moving van headed to destinations as diverse as Dallas, Charlotte and St. Petersburg, Fla.

"I'm getting people in their 20s who've lost their jobs and are moving back to their parents," Burke says. "I'm getting families with small children who are tired of California's high cost of living. They can work from home now -- which means anywhere. And I'm getting people in their 40s, especially if they have elderly parents back east who need help."

Across the United States, city-to-city migration patterns have been redefined in recent months. Fresh data from LinkedIn’s Economic Graph team shows that smaller metro areas are gaining, some famous big cities are slipping, and hints of de-urbanization can be found across the country.

In the most striking switch, two giant metro areas -- New York and the San Francisco Bay Area -- aren't coveted destinations anymore. Instead, as the chart above shows, from April through August of this year, the inflow-to-outflow ratios in those two cities have declined more than 20%, versus a year earlier. In both cases, departures now significantly exceeded new arrivals.

The big cities’ challenges were bluntly summed up by Casey Madden, a former New Yorker now living in Tampa, Fla. "All of the things I loved about New York City kind of just disappeared because of COVID," she recently told a television interviewer. Theaters are closed, nightlife has dwindled and even a walk along prime shopping streets isn’t effortless anymore.

Affluent New Yorkers have forsaken city life in favor of second homes in rural areas, CNBC reports. Many of those moves may turn out to be temporary, but some may be permanent. Meanwhile, The New York Times reports a surge of home-buying in New York’s suburbs.

It’s a similar story in the San Francisco Bay Area. Many tech companies have switched to an extended work-from-home routine -- and employees are becoming increasingly bold in deciding where that “home” should be. Schools near Lake Tahoe, nearly 200 miles northeast of San Francisco, are awash with applications from families that have relocated from the Bay Area, The Financial Times recently reported.

The inflow-to-outflow ratios are down about 10% in Seattle, Boston and Portland, Ore., as well, for the April-through-August period, relative to a year earlier, according to LinkedIn data.

Seattle and Portland are still seeing an overall influx of people, but just at a lower rate than before. By contrast, Boston is seeing net departures, making it one of nearly a dozen sizable U.S. cities confronting the prospect of de-urbanization.

Everyone leaving a metro area must go somewhere -- and that’s creating opportunities elsewhere. Some of this motion is circular, with people leaving Boston most likely to opt for San Francisco, Los Angeles or Seattle, according to LinkedIn data.

Overall, though, a sizable share of departees is opting for somewhere smaller and more affordable. New Yorkers’ top 10 destinations include Miami, Charlotte and Denver. People leaving Seattle gravitate toward Phoenix, Boise and Bend, Ore.

One way to see the growing appeal of smaller cities is to look at the five U.S. cities with the largest increase in their inflow-to-outflow ratios from April through August, versus a year earlier. These cities are Jacksonville, Fla. (+10.7%), Salt Lake City (+9.6%), Sacramento, Calif. (+7.6%), Milwaukee (+4.5%), and Kansas City, Mo. (+3.9%), according to LinkedIn data.

Both Salt Lake and Sacramento portray themselves as benefitting from northern California’s exodus.

“We don’t need to be in Silicon Valley,” says Robert Wood, chief executive officer of digital license-plate maker Reviver. He relocated the company to Sacramento earlier this year, uprooting it from the San Francisco suburb of Foster City, Calif. Lower costs and growing acceptance of a work-anywhere attitude in response to pandemic dislocations helped spur that decision.

Similarly, “Salt Lake City has set its sights on bringing in more high-tech industry, particularly in life sciences,” journalist Emma Penrod wrote in Utah Business last month. “And COVID-19 could end up being a blessing in disguise.

As for Jacksonville, Milwaukee and Kansas City, all three are benefiting from relatively strong economies this year. Jacksonville is gaining as a logistics hub, including a new Amazon fulfillment center. Milwaukee is catching an updraft from Wisconsin’s relatively low unemployment rate: 6.2% in August compared with the national average of 8.4%.

Another way to track people’s destinations is to focus on the metro areas with the highest inflows per outflow -- even if that ratio isn’t markedly different from a year earlier. By this method, cities such as Austin, Phoenix, Jacksonville, Tampa and Charlotte, N.C., rise to the top.

Such destinations are no surprise to Bobby Burke, the long-distance mover who runs Unimove and Acumen Driving Specialists. “About a quarter of my California moves are to Texas,” he says. Austin is a popular destination; so is San Antonio and the suburbs of Dallas. He says he gets to the Carolinas fairly often now, too.

As Burke thinks about his road logs, there’s hardly a part of the country he doesn’t reach, in the name of helping Californians relocate. Oregon is a common destination, so is Boise, Idaho. “I could be driving every day if I wanted to,” he says.

Meanwhile, the LinkedIn Recovery Tracker continues to show high labor stress and an unwelcome rise in COVID-19 cases, offset by mostly neutral readings on other metrics. The most positive signals come from strong stock prices and a reduction in initial unemployment claims.


A migration instance is defined as a member changing their location on their LinkedIn profile. This analysis compares the percentage change in inflow-outflow ratio (number of inflows to a market area for every outflow) of April to August 2020 compared with the year before. The rankings reflect metro areas that exceeded a threshold of 10,000 overall moves in this five-month period.

LinkedIn data scientist Brian Xu contributed to this article.  

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