A decade ago, young techies poured into The City, driving up rents, crowding the sidewalks of Valencia Street in the Mission, piling up on the hills of Dolores Park like sea lions in the sun.
Some of us loved to complain about them. They were entitled, clueless, disrespectful and plentiful. They flocked to the Bay Area from 2011-2015, when the tech industry created nearly 121,000 new jobs.
Bay Area colleges, meanwhile, produced around 31,000 graduates with tech degrees. The resulting gap of 90,000 openings created a new Gold Rush, and a “brain gain” that led the nation. Dallas ranked a distant second, with a brain gain of 25,000.
Here’s what the metrics reveal, and why it matters.
Every year in its Scoring Tech Talent report, the commercial real estate company Coldwell Banker Richard Ellis calculates which cities are gaining and losing tech talent by tracking the local college graduates with tech degrees and the tech jobs gained or lost there.
A brain gain means a money gain. San Francisco’s chief economist, Ted Egan, estimated each tech worker before the pandemic generated roughly $650,000 annually to The City’s economy, based on spending at local establishments and businesses, and employers’ spending on local suppliers. That means the brain gain of 2011-2015 brought The City nearly $300 million.
Let’s just pause for a moment here in 2022 and think about the fact that we resented 90,000 new tech workers who brought in $300 million in city revenue. Today, tech layoffs are mounting and workers are leaving as SoMa shuts down and mid-Market’s revitalization seems like a distant dream.
Those young techies did go away, just like we wished at the time. The Bay Area is now producing more tech grads than tech jobs, resulting in a “brain drain” that sends new techies out of the region.
The Bay Area added around 42,000 tech jobs from 2016-2021, while graduating more than 49,000 from colleges with tech degrees. That means a brain drain of 7,000 Bay Area grads who had no opportunity to work here in tech. That would have been unheard of a decade ago. Seattle, Portland, Austin, Denver and others vaulted past the Bay Area, which sank to 26th in the nation when it comes to gaining or losing tech talent.
“A larger share of tech expansion has occurred outside of the Bay Area since 2015,” says Colin Yasukochi, CBRE’s executive director of tech insights. At the same time at Bay Area colleges, “more students chose to pursue tech careers. Combined, these have lowered the brain gain.”
Lowered it into negative numbers. We aren’t gaining brains anymore. We’re losing them.
The report did find the Bay Area still has the largest number of tech workers in the nation, 378,870, with the highest percentage of total employment in the nation, 11.4%.
But the infusion of young workers has stopped. The Bay Area is not in the top 10 regions in the nation by percentage of people aged 20-24, the CBRE report found.
And it’s not just that young tech workers aren’t coming here. Many are also leaving. Egan found U.S. Census data shows the number of tech workers under 40 who left San Francisco from 2019-2020 was double what it was from 2012-2013.
“It’s not historically unusual for young San Francisco-based workers to move to the suburbs as that age, but CBRE’s report is pointing to a migration out of the Bay Area as a whole, which is unusual and a troublesome sign for the future,” says Egan. “It may be perceptions of the quality of life changed, or a demographic wave of millennials entered the housing market and discovered the housing cost difference between the Bay Area and other places.”
The loss of young tech workers is part of a larger trend, of course. LinkedIn found the Bay Area and New York were the only metro areas losing tech workers during the pandemic that previously gained them.
And the San Francisco tech industry group sf.citi wrote this in its report “Tracking the San Francisco Tech Exodus”:
“What we’re seeing today is nothing short of a mass migration of tech companies and tech employees outside of the San Francisco Bay Area.”
There was a time when many in The City would have high-fived over that news. A December 2013 story in The Examiner cited “Seething anger against what many see as the main source of San Francisco’s wealth driven woes: tech workers.”
There were flash fires everywhere as young techies said and did and posted things that outraged San Franciscans. That 2013 article cited a tech founder named Greg Gopman lashing out at homeless people in a Facebook post. In a famous viral video, Dropbox employees tried to kick local kids off a Mission soccer field because the techies had somehow reserved it online. There seemed to be weekly “Google bus” protests citing skyrocketing rents and evictions.
Longtime San Francisco public relations pro Sam Singer noted in 2013, “The tech industry is a vital part of San Francisco and the Bay Area… but from an image/credibility standpoint, it’s really suffering right now.”
Today, Singer sees a loss for The City in the departure of young techies. “Tech workers are the proverbial goose that laid the golden egg,” he says of their spending power and other participation in city life. “We should be doing everything to round them up, not chase the flock away.”
They don’t need chasing. As the Twitter building and Salesforce Tower sit mostly empty and downtown businesses struggle, the techies we wanted to go away are doing just that. And for what it’s worth, they remember their time in San Francisco differently than we do.
“Oh my God, San Francisco from 2009 to 2013 was just heaven on Earth,” says Jason Hreha, who graduated from Stanford in 2009 and consulted tech companies in The City with his startup, Dopamine. “It was filled with people who were passionate about what they were doing. Tech wasn’t just a career. It was a whole culture.”
Hreha says he lived with a succession of roommates in The Mission, Potrero Hill, Russian Hill and the Duboce Triangle, all within the span of four years. “It was kind of fun, always looking for a dream situation.”
Today Hreha lives in Nashville and is the CEO of Persona, a remote company that helps business leaders find executive assistants. “I wanted a fresh start, to go to a new place and reboot things,” he says. “I don’t think there really is a tech scene here. But for work today, it matters less where you live than ever before.”
It matters to the places where you live. And like empty nester parents who had longed for a little peace, some of us think it seems awfully quiet here now.