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When Jobs Follow People

Talent moves for reasons other than employment. And sometimes they even bring jobs with them.
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Downtown Seattle from Queen Anne Hill. (PHOTO: PUBLIC DOMAIN)

Downtown Seattle from Queen Anne Hill. (PHOTO: PUBLIC DOMAIN)

Seattle was in bad shape. Everybody was fleeing, as in "Will the last person leaving Seattle — Turn out the lights."  The Economist called Seattle a "city of despair." All that occurred during 1971. Dumb luck would change everything:

Recounting the movement or evolution of Microsoft from Albuquerque (its first location) to Seattle, Moretti is amazed at how “serendipitous” it was (pp. 74-77), but the impact of Microsoft relocation to Seattle transformed Seattle into a hotbed of the innovation economy and demonstrated the innovation sector’s power “to reshape the economic fates of entire communities, as well as their cultures, urban form, local amenities and political attitudes” (p.77). Albuquerque subsequently “limped along” and Seattle has “one of the largest concentrations of software engineers in the world (he cites that one-fourth of all wages paid in North America to software engineers accrue to Seattle). He transforms Seattle into a laboratory in which he demonstrates in operation those forces which we have described previously-how innovation sector simply transforms the city, the non-trading sector and almost everything else into an innovation winner: the brain hub.

The page number references are for Enrico Moretti's The New Geography of Jobs. On page 75, the reader learns why Microsoft moved:

But the founders were growing increasingly restless, and eventually decided to relocate. This was not a business decision. Gates and Allen were both from Seattle, and they both wanted to go back to the place where they had grown up. On New Year's Day 1979, the company packed its bags and moved to Bellevue, a sleepy suburb on the other side of Lake Washington from Seattle.

Moretti goes on to recount how Seattle was still in bad shape some seven-plus years later after the economic nadir. Have no doubt, the jobs that came with Gates and Allen revitalized the city. The rest of the country came there in droves thanks to that return migration. People follow jobs.

In a sense, Seattle jobs followed two people: Gates and Allen. Talent moves for reasons other than employment. I wouldn't put amenities at the front of the line for relocation rationale. Instead, consider family:

Add Kickstarter co-founder Charles Adler to the list of tech industry stars who made their millions elsewhere and then moved back to Chicago to be near family. ...

... Adler, who was born in London and moved here from Brooklyn, N.Y., calls himself a nomad. He has moved more than 10 times since dropping out of Purdue University's engineering school in 1995, including four stints in Chicago. But with a 4-year-old, the journeyman's life was no longer practical, and his wife's parents live on the North Shore.

The family moved back "for free baby sitters," Adler joked. "We live four minutes down the street from my in-laws. ... I want to be able to give my daughter what I loved about my upbringing, which was seeing the world, but I also want to give her things that I didn't have, and that's a very close, extended, tightknit family."

Emphasis added. I think of Chicago as a destination for talent, not a producer. However, the metro prodigiously produces and refines world-class talent. And such talent has an irrational connection to the place just as Gates and Allen did for Seattle. Many stay when they should go and make their millions elsewhere. Others come back, bringing jobs and hotshot spouses in tow. You don't have to make your downtown cool for those who already think it is. Jobs will follow those people regardless.