Last October a local couple from the small midwestern city of Greensburg, Indiana offered to be people’s grandparents on demand. The couple, Tami and Dan Wenning, volunteered to babysit children and accompany them to Grandparent’s Day at the local elementary school, in a bid to attract remote workers to their area. Not to be outshined, the Ozark Mountain town of Bentonville, Arkansas soon began paying free-range tech workers $10,000 in Bitcoin plus a bike to move there. These were the latest in a string of efforts to lure tech workers away from hubs like San Francisco and Seattle to sleepier locales.
If they were trying to seed the next Heartland Silicon Valley, 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 didn’t fan out across the country at all. Instead they remained concentrated in a small but growing group of cities.
Over the past few decades, high-paying tech jobs in the US have increasingly concentrated in a handful of cities, contributing to regional economic inequality. The tech sector grew by 47 percent in the 2010s, and in the latter half of that decade, nearly half of tech job creation occurred in eight “superstar” metro areas: San Jose, New York, San Francisco, Washington DC, Seattle, Boston, Los Angeles, and Austin. By the end of the decade, those eight cities comprised 38.2 percent of tech jobs.
“With the onset of remote work during the pandemic, there’s been great hope that footloose techies would bail on the big coastal hubs, head for the hills, and help tech decentralize,” says Mark Muro, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who co-authored the new report about the geographic distribution of jobs in the US tech sector.
So has the so-called remote work revolution spawned a grand dispersal of tech jobs? Not really. But it has prompted some modest reshuffling.
Located largely in the nation’s interior, nine “rising stars”—Atlanta, Dallas, Denver, Miami, Orlando, San Diego, Kansas City, Mo, St. Louis, and Salt Lake City— had increased their share of tech jobs before the pandemic struck, growing by an average annual rate of 3 percent between 2015 and 2019. Like the superstars, these cities boasted proximity to large universities and an abundance of highly educated technical workers.
Pandemic-driven remote work did little to loosen these cities’ stranglehold on jobs. In 2020, the pandemic’s first year, both superstars and rising stars added tech jobs, slightly increasing their overall share. The rate of growth, however, slowed, dropping from about 5 percent pre-pandemic to 2.9 percent in 2020.
Instead, 36 other cities notched 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, big university cities like Chapel Hill, and vacation centers like Virginia Beach. Amenity-rich and vacation towns such as Santa Barbara and Barnstable, Massachusetts saw job growth surge by more than 6 percent, while college towns such as Boulder, Colorado and Lincoln, Nebraska grew by more than 3 percent.
George Valdes, head of marketing at the architecture software startup Monograph, has one of these jobs. His wife gave birth to their daughter in June 2020, three months after the company went fully remote. Valdes lived in Oakland, California, where the air soon grew thick with wildfire smoke. When this happened, Valdes would drive his family south to stay with his aunt in Los Angeles until the air quality improved. “After a couple times of doing that, we thought, we need to get out of here.”