Move for a career? Many Americans say no
In the wake of the recession, researchers at the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis noticed a couple big trends.
The first, and most obvious, was that millions of Americans were out of work. Even today, nearly five years after the recession ended, 10.5 million Americans are unemployed, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
The second was that job seekers were less likely to find jobs in other states.
"There was a lot of speculation that people weren't moving around the country as much as they used to, and, if so, that means they were less flexible," said Sam Schulhofer-Wohl, the new director of research at the Minneapolis Federal Reserve.
As the Federal Reserve has a mandate to promote maximum employment, economists like Schulhofer-Wohl wanted to identify any connection between high unemployment and lack of worker mobility.
"Understanding whether people are willing and able to migrate in response to job opportunities is an important part of knowing what's possible for monetary policy to achieve," he said.
In the early 1990s, about 3 percent of Americans moved between states each year, Schulhofer-Wohl said. Today that rate has fallen by half.
Many economists believe the Great Recession played a big role in cutting migration rates. A key factor was that home values crashed, leaving many homeowners underwater. If they sold their home, it wouldn't bring them enough money to pay off their mortgage — a seemingly compelling reason to stay put.
But Schulhofer-Wohl doesn't think a drop in home prices hampered mobility.
"There has been a large downward trend in mobility that goes back at least a few decades and [it] has been there as prices go up and down," he said.
Schulhofer-Wohl and his research partner see a bigger factor keeping workers from moving as much: local labor markets are growing more uniform and less specialized. There aren't very many places like Silicon Valley boasting a strong concentration of one kind of job.
"The kinds of jobs you can get and the money you can earn varies less around the country than they used to," he said. "There's less reason to move because of the kind of job you can get."
Other experts dispute Schulhofer-Wohl's notion that the recession had little effect on worker mobility.
Tara Sinclair, an economist at George Washington University, thinks the Minneapolis Fed researchers need to take a closer look at how people moved in and out of places hit hardest by the recession. States like Florida, Arizona and Nevada have experienced huge drops in the number of people moving in.
"If I were going to extend on their research I would look at — Can we see any explanation of the migration varying by unemployment rates by state?" she said.
Even as Americans are making fewer moves between states, Sinclair's own research suggests workers are mobile in a different way: they're willing to move to new professions. Sinclair saw a pattern when studying use of the online job website Indeed.com.
"One of the dramatic things we're seeing is that people are very keen to look at other occupations," she said. "In fact, over 80 percent of our sample looked at occupations other than the one they're currently employed in."
Recruiter and HR professional Ann Costello agrees that workers increasingly take that approach. Even when laid off, many workers are reluctant to move out of state and risk leaving behind their support networks, she said.
Costello said the reality is that employers — and recruiters like her — also view such relocations as risky.
"When I'm talking to someone who sent me a resume from another state, my first question is, 'Why do you want to come to Minnesota?' And if they want to come to Minnesota because they can't find a job where they're at, I'm much less willing to work with that person than someone who is coming back to Minnesota intentionally," she said.
Costello said a new employee from another state is more likely to become unhappy in a couple years, and won't work out. In other words, both sides of the hiring process see less justification for big, job-related moves.