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When Is Relocating for Work a Good Idea?

Five questions to consider before moving to find a job or weighing an offer that would take you to another city

By Paul Bernard | January 26, 2013
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Paul Bernard is the founder and principal of Paul Bernard & Associates, an executive coaching and career management consulting firm based in New York City.

Transitioning to a new job is never easy. You have to adjust to a new role and performance standards, build a relationship with a new boss and acclimate to a new company culture.
 
But as a career coach, I’ve found that when you add relocation to the mix, you’re not just transitioning to a new job, you’re transitioning to a new life. And as the variables multiply, so does the risk of failure.
 
So, whether you’re planning to look for work in another area where prospects might be better or weighing a job offer that would require a move, it’s critical that you do your due diligence to avoid making a giant mistake.
 
(MORE: The Right Way to Evaluate a Job Offer)
 
The Importance of a Local Job Market
 
Before I get into how to do the research, a few words about the importance (or lack thereof) of a strong local job market.
 
After more than five years of a terrible recession, the first shoots of a recovery are beginning to sprout. But some states are faring better than others.
 
Does this mean that if you’re considering relocating to find work you need to look for places with low unemployment rates? Or that if you have an offer in hand, you should accept it only if the job market there is strong, to protect yourself if things don’t work out?
 
The answer is: It depends.
 
In general, it’s easier to find a job where the unemployment rate is low and hiring is brisk. (The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ website lists unemployment rates for states and metropolitan areas.)
 
But before you take out a mortgage in North Dakota, where the 3.2 percent unemployment rate is the lowest in the nation, there are a few things to remember.
 
First, past isn’t prolog. In November 2011, the unemployment rate in Pascagoula, Miss., was 11 percent, 2.4 points higher than the national rate. Just one year later, Pascagoula’s unemployment rate dropped to 7.8 percent , neck-and-neck with the national average.
 
Second, depending on your field, a state or metro area’s unemployment rate may not be a relevant indicator. For instance, some of the best job opportunities for engineers are in states that currently have high unemployment, like Michigan and Ohio, where the re-industrialization of America is beginning.
 
But the truth is that raw data will only give you a piece of the relocation puzzle.
 
Examining the following five questions can help you take a more holistic approach and determine whether a geographic move is also a good career move.
 
1. How Risk Averse Are You? It’s plain to see that relocating carries its share of risks. If job security is your top priority or you’re skittish about change, the potential anxiety that could accompany relocation could prove overwhelming.
 
Be honest with yourself about your tolerance for risk and ask your family and friends for their perspectives on a move. If the consensus is that picking up stakes would rattle you, don’t do it.
 
2. How Strong a Sense of Place Do You Have? Is your hometown of New York City the greatest city on earth? Is it impossible for you watch a Packers game without bawling? Should no one – and I mean no one – mess with Texas?
 
Sometimes, people with a strong sense of place conceptualize relocation as “moving from” rather than “moving to.” This perception can make it hard to cultivate new relationships and acclimate to a different culture.
 
If you were born, bred and spent the last 50 or so years of your life in the same place, think very carefully about whether you’re prepared to part.
 
I tell all of my clients who are considering a move to spend at least a week in their chosen city to get a feel for the place, the way some people do when they think about relocating to a new region for retirement.
 
3. How Would You Fit In? Even if you don’t identify with your home city any more than you do with your brand of toothpaste, it’s important to size up in advance how you’d assimilate into a new locale’s culture.
 
(MORE: How to Search for a Job Effectively)
 
Start by visiting websites of the city and its media outlets, such as the local newspaper's website and Patch.com.
 
Find out what the area offers in the way of things like recreational activities, nightlife and social clubs. Is your religious affiliation active there? What about your alumni association? Can you easily do there what you do for fun where you live now?
 
If you’re from Denver and have a passion for weekend hikes, you might be glum moving to a place where the nearest trail is an hour or more away.
 
And if you’re deciding whether to accept a relocation offer, try to meet with potential co-workers who live there to suss out the area.
 
Feelings of cultural isolation in your new city are likely to bleed over into the workplace. Take the case of a client of mine who’d spent many years in and around the New York City metro area then accepted a position in a Chicago exurb almost 50 miles from downtown.
 
Soon after moving, he found that he disliked the community and wasn’t compatible with his neighbors. So he constantly jockeyed back and forth between his new home and the East Coast, with little time to bond with colleagues after work. His failure to cultivate strong workplace relationships was one reason he wound up as my outplacement client six months after taking the new gig.
 
4. How Easy Would It Be for Your Loved Ones to Adapt? Having a husband, wife, life partner or kids adds layers of complexity to the relocation decision.
 
If your spouse or partner works, the two of you must seriously evaluate job prospects for him or her in the new city.
 
Many large companies use relocation firms to offer trailing spouse support or outplacement assistance for a new hire’s mate. Fortune 500 companies typically invest up to $2,500 or $3,000 for this service. If your new company offers this perk, make sure you can choose the outplacement/relocation consultant to find one suitable to you and your spouse or partner.
 
Make sure you address questions about local culture from the point of view of your spouse or partner, too. One client of mine relocated from New Jersey for a job across the country, but soon found that his wife was miserable and couldn’t adjust. He lasted only a few months in the new position before moving back to Princeton with his family.
 
Think hard about making the move if you still have kids in high school. Adolescents frequently take a long time to adjust. You'll also need to investigate local schools in the new location. If public schools there are wanting, you may have to factor the price of private school into your new living costs.

5. What’s the True Cost of Living? In my experience, people thinking about relocating frequently neglect to realistically compare the cost of living in their current area to the region they’re contemplating.
 
(MORE: Ideal Places to Grow Older in America)
 
But if you’re moving from, say, Kansas City to New York, you need to be prepared for your dollar to go a much shorter distance — and make sure your new salary will be appropriate.
 
You can find cost-of-living data online in the U.S. Census’s 2012 Statistical Abstract.

I also recommend Sperling’s BestPlaces calculator and CNN’s Cost of Living calculator. Both of them will estimate your comparable salary in your new city and show you how much more (or less) you’d pay for food, housing, health care and other necessities. Keep in mind that state and local taxes could be different elsewhere compared to where you live.
 
At the very least, you’ll want to be confident that a compensation package in your new location will let you maintain your current standard of living. A fundraiser in Pittsburgh making $65,000 would need a salary of approximately $90,000 to live in Los Angeles.
 
Don’t forget to factor in benefits. You may be moving from a company that pays 75 percent of your health insurance to one with similar coverage in another city. But if you’re relocating from Savannah to San Francisco — where health care costs are about 20 percent higher, on average — you’re losing the race.
 
Do your homework and determine what you need in the way of compensation before you agree to relocate for a job. For a lengthier discussion on evaluating a potential salary and benefits package, see my article, “The Right Way to Evaluate a Job Offer.”
 
When Not to Move
 
One last note: Never, ever try to solve your personal problems by making a geographic move for a job.
 
You’ll find yourself in another city with no support network, a whole new set of unknown variables and the same issues you had before you left. That’ll only make things worse — and you’ll probably wind up hating the new job that caused you to relocate. Not a smart move.