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Why moving to find work is a lot harder than it used to be

Moving to find work? Try these cities

Thinking of picking up stakes in search of gainful employment? Your odds of getting a gig are markedly better in Portland, Maine, than in Portland, Oregon. Employers in Maine's largest city hire out-of-towners at twice the rate of its namesake in the northwest, according to an analysis by iCIMS, a maker of worker recruitment software.

Here's what that means: Moving from one of part of the country to another -- a hallmark of the "Go West, young man" spirit that has long guided Americans to pursue opportunity wherever it may be found -- can be trickier than it seems. That's true despite U.S. unemployment being at its lowest rate in nearly 50 years.

Even in a tight labor market, employers are much more likely to hire a local job-seeker than bring in someone from another state, said Josh Wright, chief economist at iCIMS.

On average, 8 percent of out-of-town applicants applying for a job get an offer, according to iCIMS data. But the rates vary widely, and many major cities accept far fewer out-of-town job seekers than the average would imply. 

Employers in Boston, the most exclusive town, hire out-of-towners just one-quarter as often as employers overall. An out-of-towner would have to send out twice as many applications to companies in Philadelphia as to companies in Honolulu to get the same number of responses. In New York, they would have to increase their number of applications by three.  

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Job-hunters are likely to have an easier time in Portland, Maine, where employers hire out-of-town applicants at nearly double the national average. The most accepting city of all: Springfield, Massachusetts, with an acceptance rate of 18 percent (see above chart).

Still, as iCIMS' data suggest, there's no city where job applicants from outside the community have an easier time than locals. "There's always a home-court advantage," Wright said.

With unemployment at 3.6 percent, businesses are making efforts to pull in workers who were sidelined for a good decade, including those with less education and the formerly incarcerated, while more states and cities are raising the minimum wage above federal levels. In that environment, it's easy to assume that workers have more freedom to scour the country to scoop up for better jobs or to move from economically distressed regions to employment hot-spots.

In practice, moving for work in the U.S. isn't getting easier, but harder.

"Superstar" coasts, middling middle

It's not that U.S. cities are suddenly getting more exclusive when it comes to hiring. Over the decades, Americans have become a more stationary people, moving less and less.

In the 1960s, fully 20 percent of workers moved in a given year, according to U.S. Census data. By 2006, at the peak of the prior economic expansion, that figure was 1 in 7. Today, just 1 in 10 move.

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The reasons for the change are complex, and not all bad. Fifty years ago, there were more single-industry towns in the U.S., whereas now some workers are more likely to change industries (say, from retail to health care) without having to relocate. And two-earner households are much more common today than in the last century -- that means moving requires finding not one new job, but two.  

That was an issue for David Reischer, a New York lawyer who recently considered moving to Miami to advance his wife's career, but ultimately decided against it. "While the pay increase for her new job was substantial, my wife decided that her family was too important to pick up and leave," he said in an email. 

For his part, "The idea of having to retake anew the Florida Bar examination in order to practice law in the state of Florida is too much work and effort for me at this late stage in my career."

Lower mobility leads to decline

Still, many economists are troubled by the decline in mobility, expressing concern that the American labor market, while producing a healthy number jobs, is getting less dynamic.

"Population loss isn't just a consequence of economic decline -- it's the cause," said John Lettieri, CEO of the Economic Innovation Group, an advocacy group focused on entrepreneurship. "It lowers the startup rate. It reduces demand."

For Lettieri, lower mobility is one of many signs that the economy is splitting into two tracks: A handful of fast-growing cities surrounded by a mass of areas that are left behind.

"A lot of economic opportunity now is concentrated in the superstar coastal metro areas that also happen to be very expensive places to live and work. Combine that with the fact that the pace of new housing has not kept up, and it creates a real supply problem for people who want to work there," he said.

America - Redefining Hope

Get hired, then move

Michael Cobb, an account executive living in Chicago, has used a unique strategy for advancement: First get the job, then move the city.

Cobb, who grew up in Pittsfield, Illinois, has been working for Sherwin-Williams since interning there as a college undergraduate nearly 13 years ago. Every couple of years there was a new job and a new location: Lincoln, Bloomington, Peoria, St. Louis.

"I get a lot of work that other people don't because I'm willing to move, or at least consider moving," Cobb said.

Cobb—a college-educated 30-something with no spouse, no children and one dog—is ideally positioned to move if work demands it. But his most recent move last June from St. Louis to Chicago has shaken his faith. After nearly a month searching for an apartment, he came perilously close to not having a place to live.

"I was calling 10 different places a day, or more. A lot of times they wouldn't call me back," he said. Rental apartments were in such demand that agents would sometimes schedule open houses instead of showing tenants around individually.

"You go there and there's 10 people checking it out," Cobb recalled. He said, "You've got to be kidding me with this."

Cobb managed to sign a lease three days before his scheduled move, thanks to a friendly agent who was willing to bypass the open-house process. He recently renewed his lease, despite a rent increase he wasn't thrilled with. "If I don't live there, they'll find someone else, unfortunately," he said.

Crossing state lines

Some places, wary of a demographic decline, are trying to ease the process of moving, using everything from cheap housing to thousands in cash. Vermont and Tulsa, Oklahoma, are just two of the places offering $10,000 to entice remote workers to relocate there. But EIG's Lettieri is skeptical that such efforts can spur enough moves to boost local economies.

Instead, he prefers methods like Arizona's, which recently eliminated the requirement for people moving to the state to be re-licensed in their chosen profession. It promises to make moving into Arizona easier for a lot of middle-income jobs, from plumbing to nursing to hairdressing. Now, Lettieri wants other states to catch up.

"We have imposed enormous constraints on the ability of people to move between labor markets," he said," and that has to change."