London, the world's most popular work destination, according to a new survey. Reuters/Paul Hackett

London, New York, and Paris top the list of the world’s leading talent hubs—but not for the reasons you might think.

Over the past couple of decades, talent has supplanted endowments of natural resources and the technological and industrial prowess of large corporations as the source of economic advantage for nations and cities. Jane Jacobs initially identified the economic power of talent clustering in cities, and a raft of economic studies has since confirmed that concentrations of human capital drive national and regional economic growth and development. But most studies have only identified and examined the role of talent clusters within nation states.

A new study released last week by the Boston Consulting Group (BCG) and the recruiting firm The Network identifies the leading cities for global talent around the world. The study is based on survey responses from more than 203,000 people across 189 countries based on online and email queries. Specifically, the study asked respondents to indicate up to five cities in which they would “consider living abroad.”  

The graphic below, from the study, lists the top 30 talent hubs around the world based on these survey responses.

London ranked first, with 16.0 percent of respondents listing it as a top destination. New York was second with 12.2 percent. These two cites typically top lists of the world’s most economically powerful global cities, with Paris in third place (8.9 percent). The next several cities are more surprising. Sydney, which typically ranks among the world’s most livable cities, takes fourth, followed by Madrid, Berlin, and Barcelona in Europe, with Toronto, Singapore, and Rome rounding out the top 10. Of these, only Singapore routinely ranks among the globe’s most powerful economic and financial centers. The rest, including Sydney, are more renown for their high qualities of life. Among U.S. cities, Los Angeles, Miami, and San Francisco rank 12th, 15th, and 18th, respectively. This ranking may seem somewhat surprising: Miami is known more as a center for sun and fun and as a Latin American financial and business center, but its economy does not compare in size, breadth, or scale to either L.A., the nation’s second largest metro, or San Francisco, the high-tech capital of the world. Montreal is 21st and Vancouver 23rd, giving North America seven of the world’s top 30 talent hubs. That is second to Europe, with 17. Asia has just two, and Latin America and the Middle East only one each.

That said, when it comes to nations, 42 percent of respondents ranked the U.S. as the No. 1 potential work destination, followed closely behind by the United Kingdom (37 percent) and Canada (35 percent). It’s notable that all three of these countries are English-speaking nations with relatively high percentages of foreign-born residents and comparatively open immigration policies.

These results should, however, be taken in the context of the global distribution of survey respondents. Roughly half of respondents are currently located in Europe, which may help explain the relatively high share of those selecting European cities for an international move. This compares to the just 10 percent of respondents from Asia. But an even smaller share —about nine percent—are currently located in the U.S., and just under two percent are from Canada. Those low percentages indicate that the countries’ popularity as work destinations is less skewed by relative locals willing to hop over borders, and more by their global attractiveness to international talent.  

It’s also worth pointing out that the survey is skewed towards top talent and does not reflect the preferred destinations of the world’s populations broadly. Nearly one in four (23 percent) of respondents had master’s degree or postgraduate qualifications; 36 percent had bachelor’s degrees; and just 10 percent of respondents replied “none” or “other” when queried about their educational attainment.

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Overall, the study found a huge percentage of survey respondents—64 percent, nearly two-thirds—to be willing to move abroad for work. But it found considerable variation in how willing talented workers are to move based on the country they currently live and work in, as the chart below (also from the study) shows.

Workers from the U.S., U.K., Denmark, Germany, and Ireland, as well as Latvia and Russia, were among the least likely to move. But workers from the United Arab Emirates, Tunisia, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Jamaica, and surprisingly the advanced nations of France and the Netherlands were among the nations with the highest share of residents ready to move. The survey results don’t indicate why the latter two countries had such high percentages of pro-moving respondents, but it may be because highly-educated French and Dutch residents are likely to be attracted to global powerhouses like London and New York, which provide more opportunities for top talent.

Willingness to move abroad for work, however, is not always a good sign. In countries like Pakistan, the report found that 97 percent of residents said they would be willing to go abroad for work—in this case, an indication of just how many people are interested in escaping that nation’s troubled economy and political instability.

The report also identifies the kinds of workers who are most and least likely to want to move. The most likely are engineering and technical workers in fields like IT and telecommunications, 70 percent of whom said they would consider moving abroad. As the report notes:

The world is hungry for what these workers have to offer, and engineers may in turn sense that they have a chance to significantly increase their earnings by going to places where there is a high demand for what they do, such as Silicon Valley in the U.S. and Silicon Roundabout in the U.K.

On the flip side, only about half of the respondents in the medical and social work fields said they would be willing to move, which likely reflects national regulatory requirements for these kinds of jobs. This may be cause for concern in some countries, especially those facing shortages of medical and health-care workers

The study also identified the percentages of younger workers, 21 to 30 years of age, who would consider moving abroad for work. Now the pattern changes, as the chart below shows. In particular, younger Americans are much more willing to go abroad than their older countrymen.

More than half of American job seekers ages 21 to 30 say they are willing to move abroad. That represents the largest gap between the locational preferences of a nation's young people versus the workforce in general. Young Brits, Canadians, and Swedes were also more willing to move than their older counterparts. Meanwhile, less than 50 percent of young Russians said they would be willing to move, about on par with the general population. Once again, Jamaican and French young people topped the list, with more than 90 percent saying they were willing to move, similar to the overall population of workers from those countries.

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Most people think money is the key reason people look for work in cities outside their home countries. But that is not what the study found. In fact, as the chart at left shows, when respondents were asked to rank factors that affected their happiness on the job, compensation-related characteristics ranked low. The highest-ranked money factor was “attractive fixed salary," and it came in eighth overall.

The most highly ranked factors had much more to do with challenging jobs and engaging work environments. The top four factors were: appreciation for your work, good relationships with colleagues, good work-life balance, and good relationships with superiors. Conversely, two of the four least important factors in job happiness had to do with compensation

Clearly, the talented and creative workers of today are different from the old industrial workers of the past. They want to work on great projects, be challenged on the job, and desire a stimulating work environment. They also want to work in open-minded, diverse cities with lots of other creative and talented people and varied career opportunities, which provide the abundant excitement on which creatives thrive.

It’s an important lesson for cities, and one that I've written about extensively: When it comes to attracting talent, money and job security are necessary but insufficient conditions. Truly global and national powerhouses offer great work, great colleagues, great projects, and great cities.

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