Escape from New York: Upstate’s Problem with Fleeing Talent

Earlier this morning I read this piece in Rochester, New York’s Democrat and Chronicle about upstate’s desperate plea to keep college grads from leaving.  As someone who graduated from an upstate university in 2008, looked for suitable employment for four years (while employed for three) and then left, I have first-hand experience from the other side – wanting to leave.

Maybe I had some profound growth in the seven months between being employed in New York and in Washington state, but I’ve received awards, promotions, or bonuses for performance at every company that’s employed me (including both in New York) so I’m fairly sure the problem isn’t me.

Here are 6 reasons people flee New York.

6. Employers Correlate Graduating College With Talent

This really makes the entire article problematic. College grads can be talented, but they can just as likely be more able to pay for college or get a loan with no talent whatsoever.  There are plenty of talented people that never get a degree (mostly for economic reasons) that are frozen out of jobs that unnecessarily make that the bar for entry.  Even as someone who has worked in two different engineering fields and as a technical writer, I have yet to encounter a job that someone couldn’t be trained to do in a relatively short period of time, so long as they displayed an aptitude for the work.  The smartest and most capable people I know are the ones that care about their work, not the ones that went to college for it.  College doesn’t grant you magical job-doing powers, it simply gets you used to the work and environment.  And even then, you learn far less in two to four years of college than you do in a few months of actually working somewhere.

When the bar for entry is so high, it’s no wonder people want to leave for more “liberal” states and cities that will hire you for reasons beyond your parents’ affluence or your ability to take out a loan.  I’ve hired, worked with, and worked under people with no college degree.  It’s definitely a factor everywhere, but far less so out west.

5. They Let the Perfect be the Enemy of the Good

I was unemployed for about a year between my two New York Jobs and looking for work was an endlessly frustrating experience. I was laid off in 2010 in a delayed response to the economy tanking, and finding work as not-quite-entry-level, but not-quite experienced is apparently impossible. Finding the positions themselves was difficult enough. (Hey companies, why don’t you promote one of your current employees to a senior level position since you already know how they work and don’t have to train them.) And the lower-level positions I did find were asking for way too much.  When I finally found a job and the company had other vacancies, there was no amount of qualified resumes I could throw at them to get them to actually hire someone.

But in fairness, why on earth would a mechanical equipment manufacturing company hire someone with a degree in mechanical engineering and shop experience who lives locally?  That’s just silly.

4. The Pay and Benefits are Terrible

I started a civil/environmental engineering job right out of college making a salary of just under $46,000 in 2008. Using the average salary for an Environmental Engineer I in Syracuse, New York is $58,379 which would equate to $52,379 in 2008.  That’s an underpayment of about 13%.

There were 7 paid holidays (garbage), 15 paid vacation days (pretty average) and 3 paid sick days (terrible). Now I realize that these are way more than a lot of jobs offer, but for a white-collar salaried position at an engineering firm, they are bad. The company also had a pretty shitty medical plan that barely covered vision (pays $60 towards getting new glasses woo!) in a profession stereotyped for being full of glasses-wearing dweebs.

The funny thing was, the company thought they gave great benefits. This was presented to us as an embarrassment of riches and it worked because this information wasn’t as readily available online then and we didn’t know any better.  Not that we were allowed to take advantage of them anyway.  Vacation time usage was strongly discouraged unless you were getting married or something.  (People looked at you like an alien if you just wanted to take a three-day weekend once in a while.)

3. Companies Aren’t People or Family-Oriented

Every company on this earth will tell you that they are a family-first company, but the ones that actually mean it are few and far between. At my first employer, ‘family-first’ essentially meant that you could use your kids to leave for pretty much anything, but were otherwise fucked.  One of my (single) coworkers worked the afternoon of having had wisdom teeth removed.  At my second employer it was just a straight-up lie.

I didn’t encounter a single company in working or interviewing that had more than one policy (always maternity leave) that actually made it easier to have a family.  (Having an employee picnic doesn’t count. If anything, that’s family-unfriendly because now you’re expected to bring your wonderful family to meet people at your shit-ass employer.)  If flexible hours and working from home weren’t explicitly not allowed, you were demonized if you ever took advantage of them.  There were no benefits for using public transportation or carpooling or anything else that might help someone be able to work and simultaneously take care of their kids.

There were notices for internal transfers, but you were treated like a Pariah if you ever tried to take advantage of them.  Almost every single policy at both companies was for the purpose of wringing every last bit of life out of people for the benefit of the company.  (I may have just worked for two exceptionally shitty companies).

2. The Work Environment is Awful

I tell this story a lot, but my first company had about 200 employees split across four offices in upstate New York and northern Pennsylvania. They also had a photo directory.  Every single employee was white.  Not 90%, not most.  All of them.  If I recall correctly, I counted 7 women in technical roles.  Seven.  (A quick look at LinkedIn reveals this to still be true.)  At that point there are no excuses.  You’re just finding reasons to not hire women and people of color. The McCain-Palin hat constantly sitting atop one cube told me that my queerness, had it been public knowledge, wouldn’t have been especially welcome either.

One time we had a “not” mandatory team Christmas dinner at 5 PM on a Friday.  Who the fuck wants to do that?  This was at a country club that the team VP belonged to.  It was awful.  It wasn’t even that nice (nothing upstate is), but everyone acted like they were the goddamn Lannisters.  The food was shitty and the portions were small.  And it was in the opposite direction of where I lived.

I work in and around Seattle now and the difference between east-coast and west-coast mentalities is pretty stark.

  • On the east coast I had rigid 7:30 AM to 4:15 PM and 8 AM to 5 PM schedules that more accurately were 7:30/8 to  whenever after 5:30 you think you won’t get guilt tripped for.
  • On the west coast the most stringent scheduling I’ve had is ‘core hours of 10-4, the rest of the day / week is up to you.’


  • On the east coast I was yelled at for being 3-5 minutes late fairly often even though I was almost always one of the first people in the office.
  • On the west coast no one told me I had forgotten about a meeting until I was 40 minutes late. (Um…maybe a little too relaxed, people.)


  • On the east coast I was micromanaged constantly at one job.
  • On the west coast people trust me to do my shit.


  • On the east coast I was yelled at for wearing nice sneakers and jeans (even though HR told me those were acceptable)
  • On the west coast I’ve never had a dress code.


  • On the east coast I had a cubicle.
  • On the west coast I’ve only worked in open offices.  Well…they aren’t all winners.

I always make the joke that on the east coast I’m a slacker and on the west coast I’m disturbingly motivated even though my work habits are the same: work a little more than 8 hours each day, and late as necessary to get things done.

1. Problem-Solvers are Asking the Wrong Question

The problem is that New Yorkers in power are trying to treat the symptom, not the actual disease. The question being asked is “how do we keep these people from leaving” and not “why do they want to leave” (or “why don’t they want to stay”).  Free tuition is nice, but if you’re locking someone into a shitty job in a shitty area to get it, you’re just exchanging one problem for another.  And running a media campaign about the awesomeness of upstate is just sticking your head in the sand and refusing to admit that there are some pretty compelling reasons to leave.

Why would anyone want to work for a NY company full of older white men who want to stick you in a cube from 8 AM to 5 PM every day when you could move to Seattle and have a manager who’s a 33 year old woman with six tattoos and is going to judge you by your reliability and the quality of your work and not whether you’re in a seat for a prescribed time?  They tell me not to dress up for interviews in Seattle.  I’m never yelled at for being late (am usually not late), and if I have to take my dog to the vet, no one cares.

Millennials aren’t leaving because all the other Millennials are doing it, or to find better nightlife, they’re doing it because other states and cities have companies that will actually allow them to have a life at night that they can spend doing things that are fun.  Companies that recognize that a thriving personal life is good for their health, which is good for work, which is good for business.  They’re doing it because they’re not compelled to come in and give everyone ebola flu when they’re sick.

They’re doing it because most companies think the things that worked 40 years ago still work today.


About Alex

I am awesome.

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