Workforce Mobility Is Now At An All-Time Low

Despite recent signs of recovery in the labour market, there are still more than 12 million unemployed job seekers. So how do we explain the fact that some positions stay open for months? And why are some companies struggling to find the right people for open positions in their area?

The growing skills gap provides one explanation, but another clue is the significant downward trend in workforce mobility. Fewer people are looking (or are able to look) beyond their own backyards for a new job. Last fall, the U.S. Census Bureau announced that the percentage of Americans who changed residences between 2010 and 2011 — 11.6 per cent — reached its lowest recorded rate since they started keeping track in 1948, down from 20.2 per cent in 1985.

Even before the recession, moving for a job was a difficult decision. Uprooting a family or spouse can alter one’s quality of life for better or worse. And in the current economy, job-based relocation simply isn’t an option for many workers. More than 11 million properties, or 23 per cent of all homes, are underwater.

But recent research from and CareerBuilder shows that Americans may be more willing to move than we think: 44 per cent of workers surveyed said they would be willing to relocate for a career opportunity. Of workers who were laid off in 2011 and found new jobs, 20 per cent relocated to a new city or state. And 32 per cent of employers reported they would be willing to pay to relocate new employees in 2012.

But if employers are willing to make (even pay for) distant hires, who are they hiring? Who are the people who should consider the option to relocate?

Young professionals and recent college graduates are natural candidates. In addition to not having restricting home or family obligations, it’s imperative that graduates find positions that immediately utilise their skills and degrees. A first job out of college significantly affects future earnings potential. Searching for jobs by skill sets and experience, rather than by market, will help young job seekers explore what jobs are right for them, regardless of geography.

Highly skilled workers — especially in health care, engineering, and IT — have fared the best during the recovery. But with nearly one quarter of employers still struggling to find qualified candidates for open positions, candidates with these skills are still needed in pockets of the country. Employers are also most willing to pay relocation costs for employees with these skills. Workers in engineering, IT, business development, sales, finance, marketing, and legal services are most likely to receive compensation for moving.

But what about the millions of Americans who can’t consider relocation? First, job seekers in this situation should cast the widest net possible within their own community. Isolate which employers are most likely to need your skills and consider new fields in which your skills may transfer. A recent CareerBuilder study found that 43 per cent of workers who were laid off in the past twelve months and found new jobs are now working in a different field.

Better yet, there are several professions that are more conducive to remote work, like sales, freelance journalism or customer service. An out-of-state employer may not even need its new hire to relocate. With improving network technology, telecommuting will continue to be a more popular staffing solution, reducing the workforce’s need to be geographically mobile.

Considering relocation is not feasible for everyone. But if the conditions are right for individual households, it should be an option on the table. Even minor shifts in labour force behaviour can have a profound impact on monthly job creation. A job seeker with expanded geographic bounds is likely to find employment faster, which has ripple effects on consumer demand, hiring in those regions, and the overall economy.

This post originally appeared at Harvard Business Review. It is part of a special series called The New Rules for Getting a Job.

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