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Talent Attraction and Changing Cities

November 11, 2020 by Drew Repp

We’ve monitored the recent impact of remote work on the labor market. And we’ve researched what social determinants of health tell us about how the pandemic impacts cities differently. But one question everyone still has is how much is COVID migration changing cities?

Existing Trends

Only time will fully answer this question. But there were existing trends prior to 2020 that are worth noting, as the pandemic may accelerate them. Each year we produce a Talent Attraction Scorecard and the 2020 edition will be released in the coming weeks. Early findings reveal one such existing trend: many major metros were already losing talent.

Out of 601 large counties (those over 1 million in population), Los Angeles ranks No. 601. They replace 2019’s last-place finisher, Cook County (Chicago, IL), now No. 600. Harris County (Houston, TX) comes in No. 597. These are the three most populated counties in the country. New York County (Manhattan) ranks No. 570 while Kings County (Brooklyn, NY) is No. 597.

The Scorecard uses the most currently available data to create a talent index based on population and migration, growth of jobs and skilled workers, and education attainment levels. We’ve been using this index to track trends in talent attraction over the last five years. One of these trends is that many major metros are bleeding talent. But not all.

Talent Attraction in Largest Metros

Of the 10 largest metros, two are not in the bottom half of this year’s rankings, but instead make the top 10. One county’s diverse industry base continues to drive its regional competitiveness (job change that occurs due to factors within a region—essentially its competitive advantage—as opposed to being the result of broader national trends). It also ranks at the top of the index for migration. Meanwhile, a California county has strong rankings across the board, but its 2014-2018 in-migration is what pushes it into the top 10.

Which counties are they? Sign up for our newsletter to receive the Scorecard as soon it’s released to find out and learn more about how migration is changing cities.

While our index reveals large metros struggling to attract and retain talent, recent data has also highlighted that major hubs are seeing a demographic shift. Recent Brookings research noted that the second half of the 2010s has seen a reversal in the growth that many large cities experienced early in the decade. In some cases the population slowed, in other cities it declined.

Whether looking at how communities are trending in growing their talent pool or their populations alone, some trends we are seeing post-pandemic were in motion pre-pandemic.

Accelerated trends

The last six months has brought another trend to the forefront. Remote work has been steadily on the rise over the last decade, up to nearly 5% of the workforce nationally in 2019. This year remote work hit the gas. According to the U.S. Census Bureau’s Pulse Survey, which aims to measure social and economic impacts during the pandemic, as of late September 36.6% of adults reported living in households where at least one adult has substituted some or all of their typical in-person work for telework because of the pandemic. This is a massive shift in how we are working.

It has been well documented that the pandemic has softened many CEOs and managers stance on remote work. Some tech companies have embraced remote work indefinitely for their employees. The greater acceptance of remote work also opens the door for more freelance and gig workers. With this, we anecdotally sense that cities have seen a loss of people as workers take the opportunity to work from anywhere: “Zoom towns” emerge and rural communities welcome new neighbors.

Jury is still out

However, the data is inconclusive on how COVID, migration, and remote work will reshape cities in the long run. One of the biggest questions is how much of the migration instigated by the pandemic is permanent vs. temporary. Until firm numbers are assembled on migration (we use IRS tax return address changes), some assumptions and extrapolation will be needed.   

But it seems unlikely that companies will return to pre-COVID norms of office life. And so even if remote work doesn’t inspire permanent relocations, it could at a minimum remake city cores: less people commuting to downtown central business districts and spending money at restaurants, coffee shops, and other retail locations. As a result, remote work and population trends seem likely to influence changing cities. Firmer data will tell us to what degree, but existing talent attraction trends indicate it could be noticeable.

We dive into more of these existing and accelerating trends and what they mean for the makeup of our cities and communities in our fifth annual Talent Attraction Scorecard. Sign up for our communications to receive details on the release of the Scorecard next month.

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