Workers put down roots

A rough housing market gives rise to relocation resistance.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

As a resident of Philadelphia for 20 years, Scott Clinton has established deep roots. So when the transport company where he works as a mechanical engineer announced that it will relocate to Greenville, S.C., at the end of the year, he decided not to go.

"I'm very committed to our church, our family, our friends, our community," Mr. Clinton says. "We're just not interested in picking up and moving." Instead, he is looking for a new job. Most of the firm's 67 workers are doing the same.

In decades past, employees like Clinton were more willing to relocate, either to accept a transfer or to take a job with a different employer. Today greater independence prevails. People are more likely to say no to a move, citing a sluggish real estate market, a spouse's job, or even a divorce settlement that restricts parental moves.

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Back in the days of frequent relocations, people joked that IBM was shorthand for "I've Been Moved." Transfers usually meant advancing to the next rung on the corporate ladder. That is still the case for some. But for others, like Clinton, relocating might simply mean doing the same job in a new city.

"No one is saying if you move you'll get a promotion," Clinton says. "My company has decided they want to move to a low-cost-labor part of the country to save money. That doesn't talk to my interests."

Only 13 percent of job seekers finding positions in the third quarter of 2008 moved for their new job, according to outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas. That is down from 15 percent in 2007 and 16 percent in 2006.

"We are seeing a lot of moves that are delayed or canceled because of the financial concerns people have," says Joseph Benevides, senior vice president of Paragon Global Resources, a relocation service. "The big impediment is the price of housing in the home they're leaving. The house is worth less than they paid for it or worth less than they owe. That is the principal reason relocations are being refused, certainly surpassing family."

Relocations are also taking longer. "The time has extended pretty dramatically in the last 12 months or so," Mr. Benevides says. That creates a need for duplicate housing as transferees maintain their existing home while accruing living expenses in a new location. Benevides calls it "a major cost issue."

To spur moves, some employers are offering "loss on sale" protection. If a house sells for less than the purchase price, a company covers the loss.

Sellers are also getting help in marketing their homes. The new real estate mantra is: condition, condition, condition. "There are many more sellers of homes than buyers," Benevides explains. "People are going to be looking for a home in the best condition."

For recent college graduates without mortgages and children, the picture is different. Eighty-five percent would relocate for a job, according to a survey by Experience Inc. Seventy percent would consider moving abroad. Even so, a third say a high cost of living could be a factor in turning down a stellar job opportunity.

Lee Ann Fleming, a publicist in Denver, finds that some professionals cannot relocate because they are divorced with children. As the divorced mother of an 11-year-old, she has turned down two job offers that would have required her to move out of state.

"I share custody of my son with my ex-husband, and he has made it clear that he would fight me in court for full custody if I were to move," Ms. Fleming says. "So I stay, although either of those positions would have made a big difference to my career."

Some career specialists caution that workers who stay put do so at their peril.

"My career counseling clients who refuse to move often limit their career advancement," says Robin Ryan, a career consultant. "Unemployed people dramatically drag out their search if they refuse to go where the jobs are. Often you'll stop your rise in your own company and need to move on to a new one to continue getting a promotion."

But workers such as Clinton are willing to take that risk. "I'm not terribly concerned about being left high and dry," he says. "I have skills. I'm even optimistic that I'll find something I'm very excited about."

Gregory Cushion, an IT worker in Pittsburgh, takes a similar approach. In recent weeks he has turned down three job offers that would have required a move to more expensive cities.

"I've got to sell a home," he says. "Given the fact that I have to find a comparable house, how far do I have to travel to get to work? I have to consider commuting time and gas prices."

He must also consider his wife's career. "If she has to quit her job and move, we lose that income," Cushion says. "When a company offers me a job to go somewhere else, they would have to compensate me for the amount of risk I'm taking that my wife will find a comparable job."

Yet ask Cushion if he would relocate if the financial aspects were favorable and he responds, "Absolutely."

Last month, Karren Jeske's entire seven-person department at a biotech firm in Wisconsin turned down a move to the company's headquarters in New Jersey. She explains her own reasons by noting that houses in her neighborhood are taking two years to sell. Her husband also owns a museum-exhibit-design business in the area. She adds, "When times are tough, being close to friends and family makes everything brighter." She now works for a marketing firm in Milwaukee.

To keep a refusal from becoming a career liability, Ms. Jeske says, "Start looking when you first get wind that your job may be relocated. Build and maintain relationships in your industry. Work hard and do good work so people won't hesitate to recommend you. Be honest and tell people why you decided not to take the relocation offer. Above all, be optimistic."

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