Relocating for Career — Where You Are Impacts What You Earn

A candidate, Tim, recently turned down an offer because he decided at the last minute that he did not want to relocate his family.  The move was going to be too traumatic for them, he told me.  Even at the end of the process, we agreed that our gig was the best career opportunity he would see—it was a perfect match.  And he passed on it to stay local.

Relocation for a career move is tough.  I get it.  Sorta.

Here’s what I mean:  I have never had to relocate for work.  I would prefer to not have to move.  Finding the right support system for my kids would require significant work.  But I would absolutely do it if I needed to.

Years ago, Dave in Detroit taught me a painful relo lesson.  Dave had an in-demand skillset at the early stages of a downturn in the economy.  Detroit was suffering, we offered relocation, and he was a good candidate.  It should have been a great match.  Dave would not relocate, though, and told me he was willing to wait for work in Detroit.  We said goodbye, and I wished him luck.  Three months later, he called me back, still waiting, but now open to travel but not relocation.

After three more months of not finding work in Motor City, Dave called to say he would consider relocation, but wanted to wait for the right offer on his house.  “He’s gonna be too late,” we thought.

When he finally called back, he told me he had given his house keys to the bank, filed for bankruptcy, and was now ready to relocate at any time to any place.  No work, no wages, no home buyers, no sale.  It broke my heart and turned my stomach.

A recent BusinessWeek article, The Big Mac Theory of Development, expands on how much “place matters” when talking about work:

A new paper by Princeton Economist Orley Ashenfelter … studies what McDonald’s employees earn against the cost of a Big Mac in their local franchise. The Big Mac is a standard product, and the way it’s made worldwide is highly standardized. The skill level involved in making it (such as it is) is the same everywhere. …In the U.S. a McDonald’s crew member earns an average of $7.22 an hour, and a Big Mac costs an average of $3.04. .. In India a crew member earns 46 cents an hour while the average Big Mac costs just $1.29. …Same job, same skills—yet Indian workers at McDonald’s earn one-seventh the real hourly wage of a U.S. worker. There’s a huge “place premium” to working in America rather than India….

So the overwhelming explanation for who is rich and who is poor on a global scale isn’t about who you are; it’s about where you are.

The article goes on to look at higher end jobs, as well, including a group of software engineers.  The overall story is about global demographics, but we know that place matters for candidates.  It comes down to this:  Geographic flexibility multiplies the quality and number of career options a person has.  People with no experience in oil boom towns can make 120k.  A software programmer in Silicon Valley makes more than a software programmer in Kirksville, MO.  People who move from a depressed local economy will do better professionally than those who stay.

Where you work, where you make your version of the Big Mac, matters.  Would you move to enhance your career?  Or have you moved to escape a downturn?  It’s tough for a candidate to come to the realization that jobs aren’t where they used to be.  For recruiters, getting candidates to move requires that you be a family counselor, realtor, psychologist and career counselor.  Tim, my candidate from earlier, made the decision that was right for his family, not his career.  Tough call for everyone there.

FOT Background Check

RJ Morris
R. J. Morris is based in the STL as the Director of Talent Acquisition and Management for McCarthy Building Companies, a multi-billion dollar national firm. Like many others in the FOT clan, he’s a sports nut who can endlessly draw the parallels between athletes, sports and the talent management game. I know, I know, as if we needed more of that. He has 10 years of practitioner experience leading talent efforts in corporate HR and another 7 years in leadership roles on the agency side, so he gets both sides of the desk. Talk to R.J. via emailLinkedInTwitter...


  1. Sharon Wiatt Jones says:

    Good perspective for job seekers who need to be more flexible. Even college students, who have no family to support or mortgage to pay, often limit themselves unnecessarily. If fact, more than half do not plan to start their job search until they graduate and return to their old bedroom in their parents’ home. Many opportunities may be available in another city or region, but students overlook them. Instead, they become underemployed and do not reach their potential.

    • Max says:

      Ties aren’t the only thing that matter in relocation, unfortunately. College students often suffer from the opposite problem from what Dave and Tim had – they sometimes have the will to relocate, but not the opportunity. Entry-level and junior-level positions are far less likely to offer relocation, or even to consider non-local candidates at all. In addition, cost of living varies from place to place and tends to be higher in cities and regions with more opportunities, leading to a catch-22 in which an underemployed grad can’t afford to move to a city with better jobs.

  2. Ben Martinez says:

    Interesting breakdown. Having moved across the U.S. 6 times in 12 years along with a stint in a different country for work, I have a perspective.

    Moving takes cajones no matter what stage of life you are in, but it’s easier when someone has less ties (spouse, kids, etc). When you make the decision to move you lose your safety and security net. People who move for work are comfortable in chaos and look at the move as an adventure. This does not mean people are lesser if they do not move. Just different motivations. No matter your situation…never move for only more money. Make sure the move has more to offer than more money. Money is emotional and the emotions of more pay will wear off. Make sure the job has recognition, meaning and a sense of belonging. Most importantly make sure your family is on board.

    Lastly, be honest with a candidate about relocation. Don’t sell too hard. If they don’t want to move, they don’t want to move. Find something local for them if possible.

  3. Randy Reece says:

    Two facts I’ve found regarding relocation:

    Recruiters / hiring managers apparently don’t understand differences in cost of living. Many couldn’t understand why I’d accept less pay to work in the heartland than I got in the Bay Area. They held those pay swings against me.

    It’s getting harder to find employers who will pay the entire cost of relocation, which is far more expensive than it used to be. My latest move cost $16,000.

  4. Dotty says:

    “But I would absolutely do it if I needed to.” If you have never done it, then you don’t know how it feels or what it means to yoru family. Hence, you cannot truly empathize with the candidate. I understand, it was a good thing for him in his career and he should do the move. But it is upsetting to a family – the more you do it that however, the easier it becomes. Don’t preach on something you know nothing of.

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