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The Gen Z IRL Tech Index: Ranking Where New Grads Can Break into the Tech Biz in Every State

May 24, 2024 · 10 minutes to read

Gen Z tech career tips

Gen Z is poised to overtake Boomers in the workforce this year, and many of these emerging grads are seeking careers in tech. After all, the digital natives born between 1997 and 2012 grew up on Minecraft and Fruit Ninja.

However, transitioning to the workforce isn’t without its struggles. Gen Z has famously lost out on college internships, networking, and hands-on experiences due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and have found themselves competing for jobs alongside “desperate” workers of all ages who were displaced in the big shakeup.

With college debt to pay, they’re seeking stable jobs with less economic stress, and more life-work balance in cities where they’ll find plenty of entertainment options, and most of all, tons of tech jobs where they can safeguard their financial futures.

Once they’ve graduated, where should these newly minted tech wizards land?

We crunched the numbers, from the number of jobs and employers to the affordability of rent compared to tech salaries, and Gen Z lifestyle factors like the number of young people, diversity, and entertainment.

Not everyone wants to move to the nation’s largest cities, so we wanted to know where in their own states young workers can start climbing the tech career ladder.

Big Takeaways

  • San Jose, CA, is the best city for Gen Z to break into tech. While it has the highest rent cost, it also has the highest salaries (21% more than the #2 city) and the most jobs, with over 36% more tech jobs per 1,000 people than any other city.
  • State economic hubs, like Portland, OR, and Portland, ME, are magnets attracting companies and employees. Even as the cost of living rises, salaries often keep pace.
  • Buck the trend and save big bucks in Sierra Vista, AZ, where aerospace manufacturing and military technology are booming. The average tech income takes up the smallest percentage of the average cost of rent—just 11%—with a low 3-digit median gross rent of $893.
  • For affordability alone, Huntsville, AL, and Sierra Vista, AZ, all keep rent under 12% of median tech incomes.
  • Future-proof your career in New York, NY. It has the best combination of a high number of growing companies, tech jobs per 1K residents, plus the headquarters of more established companies employing 10K+ workers.
  • Find a diverse, young population and tons of entertainment options in Lawrence, KS.

Top ten cities for Gen Z to start a tech career


While we were searching for the top cities in every state, we also ranked all 324 of our US metros overall, scoring them on measures from tech jobs to affordability and lifestyle. Which state winners came out on top?

In San Jose, CA, the sheer number of tech jobs and soaring salaries make it an untouchable #1 overall. Silicon Valley dominates startup funding by a large margin, so it makes sense that new tech businesses created here grow amidst network effects that can’t be replicated elsewhere. With 142 tech jobs per 1,000 residents, each paying an average salary of $175,110, it’s no wonder talent is concentrated there, too.

New York, Seattle, and Austin share a similar story: they have a history of tech prowess that’s led to an influx of cash and an abundance of talent that’s attractive to companies.

But small cities like Boulder, CO Durham, NC, Huntsville, AL, and Dover, DE, can be even better places to fire up a career. For starters, Denver-Boulder is capable of drawing more venture capital funding than Austin. In another example, Dover, DE, residents credit their small size with having access to local, state, and even national power brokers. And in Durham, NC, and Huntsville, AL, the average rent comes in under 14% of an average tech salary. All of those benefits help newcomers see that they could get ahead in these hidden gem cities.

Insights from each state’s top tech hub for Gen Z

Insight #1: Economic hubs beat smaller cities for tech jobs

With high job counts, big hubs win new grads hoping to find a place among numerous companies. As such, Portland, OR, and Portland, ME, are the economic bookends that define great tech destinations for Gen Z new workers. In states with few jobs and company headquarters outside a single large city, it’s hard to top those metros as career starters and destinations for young workers.

For example, Portland, OR, boasts 39 tech jobs per 1K residents. Corvallis, OR, home of Oregon State University, offers even more, with 43 per 1K residents. But in Corvallis, that amounts to just 1,620 jobs compared to Portland’s whopping 47,220. Portland also offers 23 growing companies tagged with “information technology” and 2 major company headquarters with more than 10K jobs — Intel and PwC (Corvallis has none of either).

That makes Portland a no-brainer.

When we look only at tech jobs per capita, we miss the bigger picture: that there are a lot more people and a lot more jobs in each state’s big economic hubs (not necessarily their capital cities).

Our per-capita job count isn’t unimportant: it uncovers hidden gem second cities. But new grads have many fewer opportunities to get on the payroll in these cities, so they’re best for tech workers who already have a job offer in hand.

Insight #2: Small cities get ahead with lifestyle and affordability factors

But big cities aren’t the full story.

Cities that deviate from this pattern include those that have some tech jobs and a vibrant economy but that are also affordable and come with great lifestyles.

For instance, Carson City, NV, where Silicon Valley detractors find business-friendlier state policies, benefits from the entertainment options of nearby Reno and Lake Tahoe.

Kahului, HI, the commercial center of Maui, edges out larger Honolulu with Gen Z lifestyle factors like diversity, a young population, and more entertainment options per capita.

Idaho Falls, ID, surges ahead of Boise for affordability. In Boise, you’ll spend almost 6% more of your paycheck on rent, and you won’t gain any more growing tech companies or national headquarters to support your job hunt.

Affordability Category Winner: Sierra Vista, AZ is the most affordable spot to launch a tech career

Where does a tech salary go farthest? We looked at the percentage of an average tech salary it takes to pay the average local rent. That makes salary and cost-of-living differences across cities comparable. Top spot Sierra Vista, AZ has a bustling military security, while runner-up Huntsville, AL, is growing its aerospace industry. And it's no surprise that many top category winners here include low-cost midwestern cities like Pittsburgh, PA, Ames, IA, Omaha, NE, and Columbus, OH.

However, new workers will find the bank accounts get the biggest boost in the desert southwest in Sierra Vista, AZ. With just under 11% of your $98,200 salary going to rent, there’ll be plenty left over to hang out with fellow workers from the U.S. Army Intelligence Center of Excellence at nearby Fort Huachuca innovating in fields from drones to cyber-security.

Hunstville, AL, long  called “Rocket City,” has been winning quality of life awards that take its attractive cost of living into account. When U.S. Space Command announced its new headquarters there and both Facebook and Google built data centers nearby, you could say that Rocket City really took off.

Most growing tech companies: New York, NY

We looked at the number of growing companies with the “information technology” tag in Crunchbase, a directory of funded startups. We wanted to see where the growing companies were headquartered to ensure that new tech hires could grow their careers for years to come. The top category winners are unsurprising tech industry heavy-hitters like New York, Austin, Boston, Chicago, San Jose, and Seattle.

New York, NY has almost 3x the number of growing tech companies that #2 Austin can claim. With 331 tagged companies, the Big Apple is a hotspot for company growth. Tech companies don’t only start here, they thrive. And for career starters, that’s a good sign you won’t have to pull up roots to look for your next job.

New York is also #1 for large company headquarters, showing that both new and established companies are creating new growth for new workers.

If you want to trade positions, the best bet is to head to these large innovation hubs which double as home bases for some of the nation’s largest companies. For the best of both worlds, head to New York.

The best tech town for Gen Z lifestyle: Lawrence, KS and Ames, IA

It’s hard to beat college towns for their high Gen Z populations, entertainment options, and diversity — the likelihood that any two randomly selected people in a metro area would be of the same ethnicity. When we looked for these lifestyle factors, we found 20-somethings concentrated in cities like Lawrence, KS, Ames, IA, Ann Arbor, MI, Boulder, CO, and Madison, WI.

Lawrence, KS, wins the overall lifestyle prize. Home to the University of Kansas, it’s packed with shops and breweries (its entertainment options are more than 3x per capita what you’ll find in the state’s other university town, Manhattan, KS). Stroll the riverfront park and appreciate all the friends you can make in an area with the state’s highest diversity index.

Ames, IA, and Ann Arbor, MI, offer similar vibes, from their quaint, walkable downtowns to their game-day crowds. The young demographic means greater diversity than other cities in their states, so more young people are signing up to stay put after graduation and start their careers in the places they’ve come to know and love.

Conclusion

New Gen Z workers don’t have to choose between expensive economic hubs where they’ll find plenty of great jobs and small cities with lower costs. That’s good news for grads who aren’t excited to spend a fortune moving to the country’s biggest tech hotspots.

We looked at every state to help new workers find more spots with tech jobs, affordable costs, and lifestyle benefits—all closer to home. So, new grads need not head for New York or San Jose if their hearts are in Lawrence, KS.

Instead, they can start their job search at the best city in their own state, or explore other state’s tech boomtowns off the beaten path. Whatever city they choose, they’ll find they can mesh economics, lifestyle, and career from their very first job.

As with any insurance, coverage will be subject to the terms, conditions and exclusions contained in the policy wording. The information contained on this guide is general only and should not be relied upon as advice. The number of quotes provided varies between products, occupations and other underwriting factors determined by the insurers.
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