The ubiquitous Richard Florida’s latest concoction is a ranking of the “top cities for recent college grads.” Oh, where to begin? I tend to roll my eyes at Florida, the Rachael Ray of urbanism. But being a fairly recent (2006) college grad myself, and one who has had plenty of second thoughts about the choices I’ve made, this particular effort caught my eye.
Some of the top-ranked cities on Florida’s list make sense to me: Denver (#17), San Diego (#9), Seattle (of course) (#8), and #1 Washington, DC, which is consistently one of the best job markets in the country. Others strike me as ridiculously unaffordable for most new grads (or anyone else, for that matter): Los Angeles (#19), Boston (#6), New York (#5), or San Francisco (#2). As Florida explains, “We decided not to include an affordability variable because we thought the key was to get that critical first job and launch your career — even if you have to double or triple up with roommates.” And eat Ramen. And skip a gym membership. And postpone opening a 401(k). And getting a second job as a prostitute on the weekends. I started out earning $25,000 a year in my first job. It was a challenge, and that was in very-affordable Lansing.
As I’ll discuss later, some of these cities make sense if you are going into a particular field, but otherwise it seems insane to me that a recent college grad would just show up in San Francisco or New York without a job lined up unless they had affluent and wildly indulgent parents, or a significant other who could help them float til they found work. Honolulu (#18) gave me an especially good laugh — Florida is forgetting that Mom & Dad are going to expect visits on Thanksgiving or Christmas, and that airfare is going to add up. And God forbid Grandma should die, because then the last-minute flight there and back for the funeral will set you back three months’ rent.
A more viable option in Florida’s list is to be to go from one college town to another — or just to stay where you are, which is what I did twice (once after earning my bachelor’s and again when I finished my master’s degree). In order of increasing rank, Florida suggests Charlottesville, Raleigh, Lincoln, Columbus, Bloomington, Boulder, Baltimore, Columbia, Durham-Chapel Hill, Boston, Madison, and Austin. As Florida notes:
College towns like these have highly-skilled, resilient economies that have been among the best at weathering the economic crisis. They are great hold-over place for grads thinking about their next move, whether it’s the job market or onto grad school.
One nice thing about this particular ranking is that it does not dismiss flyover country or cold-winter cities: see 23. Fargo (#23), Lincoln, Nebraska (#20); Iowa City (#12); or Columbia, MO (#11). And bigger isn’t better, on this list: tiny Bloomington and gritty Baltimore are several spots ahead of LA.
How does this measure up with my own experience? What is most striking to me is what cities are missing; for example, the Twin Cities, Chicago, & Nashville are all surprisingly MIA.
The unemployment rate appears to have knocked off a lot of places. The default choice for my friends from my undergraduate alma mater, Michigan State University, has been Portland (OR, not ME), but it didn’t make Florida’s list, probably because of its poor employment outlook. Atlanta, where I almost moved in 2006 (due to family connections there), is missing as well, likely for the same reason. The choice of data source, the most recent American Community Survey, seems to have doomed Ann Arbor, which normally does so well in Florida’s various rankings. The most recent ACS numbers are from back in 2009, when Ann Arbor’s unemployment rate was still a bit higher than most of the cities on this list. (Another variable in Florida’s ranking is the cost of renting, which is rather high in Ann Arbor.). Ann Arbor’s and Atlanta’s absence highlights the fact that the employment outlook, as measured by the ACS, is not a very consistent indicator, since it changes so much over even just a few years. Atlanta’s job market was on fire when I graduated in 2006, for example; likewise, before fall 2008, Phoenix, Las Vegas, Charlotte, and a host of cities in Florida (the state) all seemed unstoppable. Now they are struggling, and places that were deeply out of fashion a couple of years ago (Pittsburgh?) boast some of the best employment rates in the nation.
Ultimately, this is kind of a stupid exercise, because the best city for you to be in depends on your career path. For my friends pursuing dance, art, musical theater, opera or fashion, NYC was practically the only choice; for those in acting, LA or NYC; for publishing, NYC again. (Who really is able to find a job in publishing these days, though?) For IT, you go to San Jose (#7 on Florida’s list) or San Francisco (#2). For public affairs, you either go to DC (#1) or (for Michiganders) Lansing. And in this economy, if you have a job offer with a company, you go wherever it is. What kept me in Ann Arbor last year after I finished my master’s degree, apart from my partner, was a job offer, not my innate passion for the place. (As much as I love my Prius-driving, organic soymilk-drinking, granola-eating, parks-obsessed little People’s Republic…)
If you are a gay guy or a lesbian, then you have some additional considerations and REALLY have to do your research. By a number of factors, including affordability, having lots of gay men, and reasonable proximity to family, Columbus or Chicago would have been great options for me. I had a really big chip on my shoulder about Chicago when I graduated, because it seemed expensive (compared to the Lansing area, where I’d gone to college), the winters are even nastier than in Michigan, and — worst of all — everyone I knew from my hometown seemed to move there after they finished school. In retrospect, though, it would have been a good fit, especially given how much value I place on public transit today. (Speaking of which, I would have added a public transit variable to Florida’s formula, since you can save so much when you are young and cash-strapped by going without a car.)
Finally, my climate preferences have changed significantly. Back when I was in college, I spent the freezing winters constantly walking from one end of campus to another, between work, school and extracurriculars. In contrast, I spent summers either studying abroad or shuffling around in a T-shirt and shorts. So I swore I wanted to go someplace with milder winters. Having to arrive at the office without being soaking and stinky is a consideration that did not weigh so heavily back then. Now that I’ve had four years of commuting to work in business attire, I’ve gained a new appreciation for cooler weather. I’ve declared most of the Sunbelt off limits, since I sweat like a hog in the summer. Many complain of the fog, the rain and the constant chill of San Francisco or Seattle, but it sounds AWESOME to me. Washington, DC: I love you, honey, but I hate your summers.
I’ll give Florida credit for acknowledging a statistic which more than any other renders moot rankings like these: “Don’t feel too bad if you’re moving back to your parents’ house. According to a widely-reported recent survey, that’s where some 85 percent of your classmates are headed too.”
Readers, what do you think about this list?