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The Pioneers of Huntsville, Alabama

For some STEM-intensive firms, the cost of living in Silicon Valley is a deal-breaker.
September 11, 2015, 10am PDT | Emily Calhoun
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For STEM employees, it's no longer necessary to move to expensive cities like San Francisco and Boston. While these cities are still centers of industry and innovation, tech, biotech, and engineering clusters are sprouting up all over the country. Places like Huntsville, Alabama, which now ranks third in terms of STEM jobs as a share of the local workforce, are pulling talent away from places like San Jose, CA and Framingham, MA, ranked first and second, respectively.

Why? Why not. Despite the high rate of unemployment and low educational attainment in the wider population, Huntsville's legacy of government-funded research has supported a permanent contingent of NASA and other defense and aerospace firms. With them come the region's best and brightest STEM workers. These unusual outposts create a virtuous cycle: "Those companies pay good salaries that end up supporting public schools, restaurants, and a symphony orchestra—amenities that in turn make the city an appealing place to people like Myers [a Silicon Valley expat] and the high-skilled workers he employs," write Christopher CannonPatrick ClarkJeremy Scott Diamond, and Laurie Meisler,

Bloomberg's neat infographic shows that in San Francisco and New York, average salaries for STEM workers do not outrank the costs of living. In San Jose and Boston, high average salaries make those locations barely affordable. However, in places like Houston, Charlotte, and Memphis (all mid-size Southern cities), the STEM worker's dollar goes a lot further. Houston ranks 16 in terms of STEM pay, with median pay at $88,000, but the cost of living index is 93.9. By comparison, San Jose STEM worker median pay is $120,000, and the cost of living index is 221.3. That's 36% higher pay, and 136% higher cost of living.

The Bloomberg team suggests that these pioneering techies are altering the landscape of their new unlikely homes to attract creative class millennials. “Competition for STEM workers has led Huntsville’s business community to the gospel of tactical urbanism, with its food trucks and craft beer. Downtown developers have been turning old cotton mills into artist colonies and loft apartments, and sponsoring events like a human foosball tournament and a thousand foot-long water slide.”

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Published on Thursday, September 3, 2015 in Bloomberg Business
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