Migration’s new map: Florida and Utah win favor as two giant metros lose out

Published on March 17, 2021

George Anders, Senior editor at large, LinkedIn

Salt Lake City mayor Erin Mendenhall knows 2020 was a tough year for many people. So her recent State of the City speech touched on everything from the pandemic’s burden to the need for better housing. But she couldn’t stay somber forever.

First came a shout-out for The BioHive, a partnership with local biotech companies that’s creating high-paying jobs. Right after that, a plug for Tech Lake City, which is making her metro a hub for software, automation and digital learning companies. Putting it all together, she presented “a future of opportunity, equity and strength.”

Fresh data from LinkedIn’s Economic Graph team shows why the mood is brightening in places such as Salt Lake. In an analysis of 38 major U.S. metropolitan areas, the Utah capital emerges as the city that’s made the biggest gains in attracting net new residents.

As the chart above shows, other metro areas ranked among the top five gainers are Jacksonville, Fla., Richmond, Va., Sacramento, Calif., and Cleveland. Two additional Florida metro areas — Tampa-St. Petersburg (No. 6) and Miami-Ft. Lauderdale (No. 9) — crack the top 10 as well. 

Also on the list are Milwaukee (No. 7), Kansas City (No. 8) and Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill, N.C. (No. 10.) The analysis looks at migration patterns from April 2020 through February 2021, providing a snapshot of how Americans have adjusted to disruptions associated with the COVID-19 pandemic.

All of these top-10 cities share manageable housing prices, generally strong affordability and spacious geography. That sense of space became a huge asset in 2020, making it possible to get out and about even with all the health-related restrictions brought on by the pandemic. 

Some heartland cities, such as Cleveland, Milwaukee and Kansas City, aren’t yet migration magnets, but the movement of people in and out of these cities in the past year has been much more favorable than in prior years. 

Meanwhile, Sunbelt cities that have been booming for years, particularly Jacksonville and Tampa, became an even more desired new destination in 2020. Worker inflows — as tracked by changes in people’s LinkedIn profiles — surged to levels 40% or more above the rate of outflows. 

Sheer math says it’s impossible for every metro area to be a net gainer — and the past year has created a deep dent in the appeal of the biggest U.S. metro areas. LinkedIn data shows that Chicago, Washington D.C., Boston and Los Angeles all saw their appeal dim. Each of these cities ended up among the bottom 10 metros in terms of net migration trends.

At the very bottom of the list: San Francisco and New York — which in the pre-COVID days were prized destinations for ambitious people on the move. Now these coastal titans stand out as the two cities with the biggest slump in migration appeal. 

Plenty of media coverage has focused on tech workers fleeing San Francisco, as high costs and deteriorating city services take their toll. But LinkedIn data shows that it’s actually the other half of the equation — dwindling inflows — that’s the biggest driver of big cities’ migration woes.

Stephen Whitaker, a policy economist at the Cleveland Federal Reserve, recently analyzed urban migration trends using credit-card data. He found that dense city neighborhoods across the United States were losing out — and a big drop in inflows was the primary reason. “Hundreds of thousands of people who would have moved into an urban neighborhood in a typical year were unwilling or unable to do so in 2020,” he wrote.

That slump in urban newcomers means rent in many big cities is getting a lot cheaper. San Francisco’s prices have fallen 17% or more in the past year, Bloomberg journalists John Gittlesohn and Noah Buhayar recently reported. As they explained, “the pandemic stymied the typical inflow of young people moving to the city for new jobs and higher education.”

If city life in San Francisco and New York has lost its allure, there’s always Florida. Jacksonville, Tampa and Miami don’t have identical economic profiles, but they’re all gaining migration appeal because of Florida’s mild climate, robust local job-market and low taxes. Florida’s statewide unemployment rate, at 4.8% is markedly lower than the national average of 6.3%.

As Tampa mayor Jane Castor told LinkedIn in October, “We’re creating entire neighborhoods,” she says. Elegant new river walks are becoming homes to five-star hotels, while industries ranging from financial services to pharmaceuticals are driving growth in the local economy. 

In addition, while Florida’s relatively light enforcement of COVID-inspired social distancing troubled some people, it may also have made the states more alluring to others.


A migration instance is defined as a member changing their location on their LinkedIn profile. This analysis calculates the inflow-outflow ratio (number of inflows to a market area for every outflow) for 38 major U.S. metro areas. These metros are then ranked from highest increase to steepest decline, based on the percentage change in the inflow-outflow ratio from April 2020 to February 2021, compared with the same period the year before. The rankings reflect metro areas that exceeded a threshold of 20,000 overall moves in this period.

LinkedIn data scientist Brian Xu contributed to this article.

Published by George Anders, Senior editor at large, LinkedIn.
Published on March 17, 2021.
Source: LinkedIn Economic Graph. Note: This analysis calculates the inflow-outflow ratio (number of inflows to a market for every outflow) year-over-year for 38 major U.S. metro areas from April 2020 to February 2021.