What We Can Do to Prevent a Tech-Xodus

By BrainStation August 23, 2019

Thanks to a mix of homegrown tech startup companies and expanding offices from established giants like Amazon and Google, urban centers from Vancouver to New York to Toronto are witnessing a boom in employment opportunities — and with it, highly skilled tech workers moving on in. But will all those workers actually stick around long-term?

One survey suggests — maybe not. A whopping three out of every four employees in the tech sector would consider moving to a new city for work, according to Axios research. And when workers are figuring out where to live, more than 80 percent say the cost of living is the top factor, followed by weather, commute times, and affordable housing. 

With so many desirable candidates open to moving around, cities across North America should be bracing for a tech-xodus of sorts, given the high possibility of workers looking for more affordable places to live.

With that in mind, companies need to be extra cautious about keeping their top hires happy.

“I think a big part of the attraction from an employee perspective is, am I working in a job that’s all the things I’m looking for?” says Sean Mullin, Executive Director of the Brookfield Institute for Innovation + Entrepreneurship at Ryerson University in Toronto. “Good pay, it’s compelling, it’s interesting.”

There’s a high demand for tech skills, he adds, and many jobs in the industry — be it web development or graphic design or social media management — can be done remotely more often than other industries.

That’s part of the reason tech workers are easier to pull away, but it’s something companies and cities can combat through a variety of channels.

Focus on Culture and Retraining 

One of the ways companies can boost employee retention is by focusing on improving overall corporate culture, which can mean increasing salaries and providing benefits like on-site childcare, catered meals, and social events. 

“You have to pay them more, give them better working environments… that creates a more vibrant environment and helps retain them,” Mullin says.

As we’ve recently written about, retraining, or reskilling, is an increasingly important tool for organizations, and it too can have a huge impact on culture and employee retention. In a 2017 survey, 70 percent of employees said that job-related training and development opportunities influenced their decision to stay at their job.  As little as a 10 percent increase in educational development has also been shown to lead to an 8.6 percent gain in productivity.

Ensure Cities Are Worth Living In

Local governments, he adds, can also play a role in fostering the type of community skilled workers want to call home.

“A place like Toronto and other cities like New York, the tech component of our economies is growing quite rapidly, and high-quality companies — like start-ups or scale-ups or even large companies — setting up shop… bodes well,” Mullin says.

But, if those cities aren’t livable, quality hires can get restless and disenchanted. So, he says, civic leaders need to regularly ask a key question: Are they making their city a good place to live?

“Public transit, affordability… if those things aren’t there, it doesn’t matter how good the job is,” Mullin warns. “You’ll start to lose people to places where they can get the work they want.”

For employers, it can be worth lobbying their local government as well, to ensure decision-makers get the memo that livable cities attract top talent — which in turn boosts the economy and attracts more talent and investment. 

In other words, a win-win.

Adapt to a More “Fluid” Labor Market

Mullin says while companies and cities need to be aware of worker preferences, and the likelihood of team members jumping ship, there’s also no cause for alarm.

“You might have a phenomenon where there is a shift of people out of cities, or out of big cities and into smaller cities, but the net effect is you still have people pouring into the tech sector,” he says. 

“It would take a huge, sudden shift to suddenly have the outflow increase to such an extent that it starts to have these numbers decline.”

The bottom line? It’s natural and healthy for people to move in and out of cities, and it’s all part of a “fluid” labor market, Mullin says. And, whether companies like it or not, having workers willing to move is a good way to keep employers on their toes — so they’re always giving top hires a reason to stay.