Cost of Living Adjustments?
I fill a lot of jobs in places like the San Francisco Bay Area, Southern California, Boston and New York. As compared to other locations in the U.S. it is rather expensive to live in those cities. People who are considering moving to expensive locations in order to take a new job will often ask if the employer will adjust their salary upward to account for the higher cost of living. The answer? It depends, but generally no.
There are a few select organizations – typically large, well-capitalized multinationals – that will include a modest Cost of Living Adjustment in the job offer, and most often it appears as a one-time lump sum built into the relocation package. But in the vast majority of cases the employer doesn’t provide a COLA, and it’s often surprising for many to learn that the wages for Med Tech marketing jobs in expensive cities are only marginally higher than those in less expensive places.
The best evidence of this is the case of relatively large corporations that have offices and employees doing nearly identical jobs in different cities (think places like J&J, Medtronic, Abbott, Roche, Novartis). To be sure, there are some differences in salaries paid to employees working in different locations, but generally speaking a Marketing Manager at a given organization who is based in San Francisco is earning no more than 5-10% more doing the same job as his/her counterpart in, say, Minneapolis. That “COLA” comes nowhere close to off-setting the difference in cost of housing in most cases.
This explains why employers located in pricey cities try their hardest to fill job openings with candidates who are already living in the local area and who don’t have to relocate. Employers are fully aware of the difficulty in convincing someone to relocate and take a financial hit in the process – even though they are almost always getting some sort of increase in their pay. As in taxes, it’s not what you earn that is important – it’s what you keep.
All employers in expensive locations have been burned multiple times by courting candidates who need to relocate only to find out at offer time that they will not move. Or they will move only if they are made “an offer they can’t refuse.” Often the candidate will not do the math and actually research the rent or home prices in the new area until the end of the process, wasting everyone’s time and burning bridges along the way. We also frequently see the situation where the candidate doesn’t engage the spouse or partner in the arithmetic of the move until after an offer has been extended, which is a recipe for disaster. Finally there’s the worst case scenario where a candidate accepts a job, begins employment and then decides after six months or so that they’re not going through with the relocation. Now the employer is faced with an “effective” vacancy of a year or more because they have to re-start the search from scratch.
For these and other reasons hiring managers always prefer a local candidate who is already used to paying the cost of admission in the expensive but very lucrative job market. They can fill a job faster, cheaper, and easier, and the “flight risk” factor is reduced.
Why does this matter?
Why would a sane person consider relocating to take a new job in a significantly more expensive area, assuming there are no personal or family reasons driving the decision?
As it turns out, there are several reasons.
The most common is the opportunity for growth and development within an employee’s own company. By moving to the headquarters location from a regional office, a sales position, or a manufacturing plant, an employee can generally improve their career development options significantly. The other frequently cited justification for an expensive relo is based on the fact that the employee’s industry is likely concentrated in that new area, so that if there is a layoff or something goes wrong with the new job or employer, there are many other viable options nearby and the employee will not have to keep relocating to build their career.
There are valid reasons why those cities are so expensive – the best jobs are often based there, in a concentrated geographic area, limiting career risk for people in those industries. And the situation is self-perpetuating: an employee with a great idea leaves his or her company to go across the street and build a start-up in the same industry. They’re unlikely to build that new company in a remote, inexpensive place because the most important resource – human capital – is right there nearby.
So some bold, adventurous souls are willing to pay the cost and move to Cambridge, Manhattan or Palo Alto so they can be either in – or at least near – “the game.” They want to be in places where career opportunities abound and make the risk-return tradeoff that we often have to make in managing our careers, and in living our lives for that matter. Maybe someday geographic COLA’s will be a staple of the American workforce, but until then we’ll have to do the analyses and the make the tradeoffs about relocation, knowing that the immediate take home pay may not go as far as we hope.