Last October a local couple from the small Midwestern town of Greensburg, Indiana have offered to be people’s grandparents upon request. The couple, Tami and Dan Wenning, have volunteered to babysit and accompany them to grandparents’ parties at the local elementary school, in a bid to attract remote workers to their area. Not to be overshadowed, the Ozark Mountain town of Bentonville, Arkansas soon began paying loose techs $10,000 in Bitcoin plus a bicycle to ride there. They were the latest in a series of efforts to lure tech workers away from hubs like San Francisco and Seattle to sleepier places.
If they were trying to seed the next Silicon Valley Heartland, they had their work cut out for them. New data from the Brookings Institution shows that despite hopes that work from anywhere would thrive during the pandemic, most tech workers have not dispersed across the country at all. Instead, they remained concentrated in a small but growing group of towns.
Over the past few decades, high-paying tech jobs in the United States have become increasingly concentrated in a handful of cities, contributing to regional economic inequality. The tech sector grew by 47% in the 2010s, and in the second half of that decade nearly half of tech job creation occurred in eight “superstar” metro areas: San Jose, New York , San Francisco, Washington D.C., Seattle, Boston. , Los Angeles and Austin. By the end of the decade, these eight cities accounted for 38.2% of tech jobs.
“With the onset of remote work during the pandemic, there was high hope that footless techs would bail out major coastal centers, head for the hills, and help decentralize technology,” says Mark Muro, senior researcher at the Brookings Institution which co-authored the new report on the geographic distribution of jobs in the American technology sector.
So has the so-called remote work revolution spawned a wide dispersion of tech jobs? Not really. But it caused some modest changes.
Located largely in the interior of the country, nine “rising stars” – Atlanta, Dallas, Denver, Miami, Orlando, San Diego, Kansas City, Mo, St. Louis and Salt Lake City – had increased their share of jobs technology before the pandemic hit, with an average annual growth of 3% between 2015 and 2019. Like the superstars, these cities boasted proximity to major universities and an abundance of highly skilled technical workers.
Remote work brought on by the pandemic has done little to loosen these cities’ grip on employment. In 2020, the first year of the pandemic, superstars and rising stars added tech jobs, slightly increasing their overall share. The growth rate, however, has slowed from around 5% before the pandemic to 2.9% in 2020.
Instead, 36 other cities saw stronger tech job growth than before the pandemic. These included northern business centers like Philadelphia and Minneapolis, large, warm-weather cities like Charlotte, North Carolina, major college towns like Chapel Hill, and vacation resorts like Virginia Beach. Amenity-rich and vacation towns such as Santa Barbara and Barnstable, Massachusetts saw job growth increase by more than 6%, while college towns such as Boulder, Colorado and Lincoln, Nebraska grew by more than 3%.
George Valdes, marketing manager at architecture software startup Monograph, fills one such position. His wife gave birth to their daughter in June 2020, three months after the company moved away completely. Valdes lived in Oakland, Calif., where the air quickly thickened with smoke from wildfires. When this happened, Valdes would drive his family south to stay with his aunt in Los Angeles until the air quality improved. “After a few times we thought we had to get out of here.”