The state of Vermont was asking itself the same question we ask ourselves here in Richmond: “We have an aging, shrinking population and a hard time finding skilled workers ready to work, but we also have a great quality of life to offer. What should we do?”
Vermont’s answer is to do the math on incentivizing remote tech workers to move there. They’ll give you $10,000 to relocate there and work for a company based somewhere else. They’ve set aside enough money to do this for up to 100 people this year. They’re not the only ones trying this approach to stabilizing their population and workforce; Tulsa, Baltimore and Detroit are just a few.
Would something like this – paying people to stay here or move here – work for Richmond?
It’s a creative approach and one that’s tempting to pursue, but there are some important factors to consider:
Some of the cities running these programs have found funding in philanthropic gifts or grant money; they’re not necessarily taking money out of the city’s operating budget. This kind of incentive is an investment and therefore inherently risky. If Richmond did this, we’d need to be prepared to see the money as “gone” for all practical purposes, and sometimes I don’t think we have an appetite for such ventures.
Many of the cities trying this out are targeting tech workers who can do their jobs from anywhere. Tech worker salaries tend to be much higher than the median household income of these cities, and so the thought is that the new arrivals would spend some of that money in ways that helps revitalize the local economy. One study says that every new high-tech job creates four more jobs to provide local goods and services to those tech workers. So wouldn’t it be good to have those four jobs created in our city?
Yes, but Richmond and Wayne County have historically struggled with seeing tech jobs as real jobs worth pursuing and we have some work to do (having residential fiber Internet access, a real coworking space, being more walkable and bike-able, increasing our diversity and welcoming-ness) to make the city appealing to someone who can live anywhere.
This also means that paying people who already live here a reward to stay isn’t necessarily a good investment if we don’t have some reasonable expectation that their disposable income will jump far beyond what other residents are already making. We should not pay $10,000 to a recent high school grad with no assets to stay here for a $30,000/year job and expect to have that move the needle in our local economy any time soon. (Of course we want those graduates to stay, we just have to find other ways to encourage it!)
A lot of the value of these kinds of incentive programs is in the marketing buzz that they can create. The media headlines introduce people to the city as much as the financial incentive might. As more cities try this and newer efforts get lost in the noise, the return on investment for Richmond could be a lot lower than the pioneers who did it first.
Lastly, there’s a very real danger in creating toxic resentment among current residents if they see someone else being paid to come or stay here. If we did something like this, we’d really have to show in concrete, relatable ways that the long-term thinking and payoff would be worth any short-term discomfort. And we’d need to make sure that we were investing in people with some intent to be here more than just a year or two, or until the city down the road offers them a few thousand dollars more to move again.
In short, I don’t think this kind of incentive is a good fit for where Richmond is right now. We have a lot to offer tech workers who work remotely (I’m one of them), but we need to keep laying a stronger foundation to increase the chances that any such investment actually pays off.
What do you think? Should we pay people to stay here or move here?