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Fewer Americans Are Moving To Pursue Better Jobs Across The Nation


People are going to have to start moving. That's what Donald Trump recently told The Wall Street Journal about improving the job situation for struggling Americans. And many economists agree with the president. For years, they have pointed out that Americans are far less likely today to pick up and move to find better work than their parents and grandparents before them. Economists do not necessarily agree on the reasons why. Here to talk more is Jed Kolko. He's chief economist at the job site Indeed. We reached him via Skype. Welcome to the program.

JED KOLKO: Thanks very much. Great to be here.

CORNISH: So census reports say just 10 percent of Americans moved in the past year. And back in the '40s, that number was up around 20 percent. Specifically, what are the reasons why economists worry about that?

KOLKO: Economists worry about the decline in mobility because there are often better job opportunities in other parts of the country than where people live. There are big differences in wages, big differences in unemployment rates in different parts of the country. And in some cases, there are different types of jobs available. People can find the best opportunity for them if they're able to move. But if something is holding them back, then they might not end up being in the best opportunity they can find.

CORNISH: Now, President Trump told The Journal - he said, you know, a lot of them don't leave because of their house, because they say, gee, my house - I thought it was worth 70,000 - dollars, he's talking about - and now it's worth nothing. And Trump is saying, OK, go, and cut your losses. Is that true? Is housing the main thing keeping people from moving to where there is employment?

KOLKO: We think housing is one of the reasons that's keeping people from moving - maybe not so much that they don't want to sell their home at a loss but rather that housing costs in other places are so expensive that they can't afford to move there. Many of the places with higher-wage jobs and lots of opportunities also are the same places where housing costs are higher.

CORNISH: What are some of the other obstacles?

KOLKO: Another kind of obstacle to mobility is rules that don't let you take your job with you. Occupational licensing means that you need to be licensed or certified to practice your job in a particular state. If you're in one of those kinds of jobs, you might not be able to move to another state without relicensing or recertifying.

CORNISH: Plus, I have to assume there's specialization - right? - I mean some of these jobs for high-skilled workers especially.

KOLKO: There are certain kinds of jobs, particularly specialized jobs, that tend to cluster in particular places. We're seeing this in fact in the tech industry more and more. So even though that tech jobs that are lower-paying are spreading out to more parts of the country, the cutting-edge, higher-paying, faster-growth tech jobs are increasingly concentrated in a handful of tech ops. And those places tend to be expensive.

CORNISH: Is there another effect if people were to start moving - right? - on the economies that they leave behind?

KOLKO: When people move to a better opportunity, it's great for the person who's moving, but we also have to think about what happens to the places that they're leaving behind. Not everyone is equally willing or able to move. And it could be that people who are left behind in places that others are leaving end up being worse off if the economy slows further.

CORNISH: In the meantime, for policymakers who do see this as a problem and want people to start looking for (laughter) economic opportunity beyond their backyards, is there anything they can do about it?

KOLKO: Two of the main policies that could increase mobility would be to build more housing in expensive areas to start to make those areas more affordable and within reach. And another would be to look at regulations that make it hard for people to move with their jobs to another state because of licensing requirements.

CORNISH: Now, I gather from some of your writing that you're among those economists who doesn't necessarily feel like this is a completely bad thing. What's the silver lining, to your mind?

KOLKO: First of all, one reason why people move less is they might not need to as often. Lots of kinds of service jobs like retail, many jobs in health care, exist wherever people live. Also, some of the decline in mobility is not for job-related reasons. Over the past 10-or-so years, much of that decline has been fewer people moving for family or personal or housing reasons, not because they weren't able to move for a better job.

CORNISH: Jed Kolko is chief economist at indeed.com. Thank you for speaking with us.

KOLKO: Thanks so much.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.