4 Reasons to Launch Your Career in the Midwest

by Matt Jones, CPA

I was interviewed last week for a Spectrum News 1 article on launching your career in Cleveland, Ohio. Cleveland ranked the 3rd best city in the nation to launch a career in a recent article on LinkedIn and the interviewer wanted my opinion as a young professional. Here are the 4 reasons Cleveland and cities like it are great places to launch a career:

1. You can afford to enjoy life in Cleveland

Midwestern cities topped LinkedIn’s list of best places to launch your career because of two factors: low cost of living and high starting salaries for recent college graduates. Many new graduates don’t realize how quickly costs pile up when you’re working and living on your own. Costs increase significantly in places like New York or Chicago where rent and transportation eat up more of your income. In many midwestern cities, although your salary may be lower, your expenses are significantly less – making net income significantly higher.

I recall being at a conference in Chicago for my first job and describing my apartment, parking, commute, and frequent sporting events attendance to colleagues from California. They stood there slack-jawed that I could afford to live like this on a first-year associate’s salary. They simply could not comprehend the quality of life a midwestern city afforded me. In Cleveland you might be able to afford:

  • Living in the city or a sizeable suburban home
  • Walking to work (and the lakefront!)
  • Owning a car and parking it near your downtown apartment/office
  • Traveling domestically and internationally
  • Paying off student loans and avoiding credit card debt (both common liabilities among recent graduates)
  • Frequenting museums, cultural events, and professional sports (Did you know Cleveland has the country’s largest performing arts center outside New York City?)

2. You can make friendships and business connections

The friendly people in the Midwest are often overlooked. Getting started in your career, living alone and working hard can get lonely and can be exhausting. Add the ultra-competitive nature in large cities and it can feel like you’re on an island.

I remember the conversation I had with a friend who moved to Cleveland from Los Angeles, we’ll call him Brian. He quickly became friends with my then-girlfriend, now wife, and later shared how cool it was that I was chill about them being friends (his words, you know, L.A. lingo). He explained that in L.A. no one would be okay with their girlfriend showing a new guy around because it’s a competitive and less trusting place.

After 5 years, Brian loves Cleveland, leading his girlfriend Anne to move from Florida. Brian and Anne travel to the east and west coasts often to visit family and friends. He loves to golf and was able to join a country club without making sacrifices. Brian and Anne fit in well in Cleveland and we’re so happy to have them. Although I did have to remind Brian to relax one of his early nights out in Cleveland – “You’re at an LA, Brian. I need you to bring it down to a Cleveland”.

But it’s not just friends that are easier to make in Cleveland, you can also make business connections more easily. The friendly attitude of the Midwest permeates board rooms as much as barrooms. I find it easier to connect with business leaders, network and find a mentor in a city like Cleveland because people are more open in general to new connections and helping others.

3. You can get ahead

Some people believe that starting their career in a big city gives you a higher salary that compounds for higher lifelong earnings. It’s not faulty logic, but there’s still the higher costs of living to deal with. Just look at this list of the best/worst cities to build wealth. Many of the biggest cities are the worst places to build wealth while midwestern cities are some of the best.

Why would major cities be worse for building wealth when they often pay higher salaries? Because it’s not about how much you make, it’s about how much you can keep.

The flip side is that you can rise through the ranks faster in a smaller city. Such as my wife’s making partner by 30 or me getting hired as a consultant at a Fortune 500 organization. Anecdotally, I believe you’re more likely to move to a larger city and keep your position/title than to move to a smaller city and keep your high salary.

In addition, with the extra savings you’re able to set aside you can afford to invest (perhaps in real estate, as I’ve done) or start a business – and since things tend to move a little slower, you may find extra time to work on that side business (or personal finance website).

4. You can make an impact now

Would you rather be a small fish in a big pond or a big fish in a medium pond? In cities like Cleveland, you can put your mind to something and accomplish it. In fact, you can accomplish a lot of things. A common question I hear from young professionals is “how do you get on the boards of nonprofits”. Here’s how I did it accidentally:

After college graduation I moved back to town and decided I wanted to meet CEOs. So, I started a young professionals group for one of the highest-regarded business organizations in town and invited business leaders to have breakfast with our young professionals’ group.

This is valuable in several ways: interacting with CEOs was incredible, but starting and managing a committee of volunteers and programming events is an excellent way to learn leadership skills. The experience with the Union Club led me to start a nonprofit YP group. After several years I was asked to be the youngest member of the full board of directors of that nonprofit. Gaining this board experience led me to sit on two other boards.

Maybe I could accomplish this in a larger city. But, probably not while walking to work, living on my own, keeping my car downtown, starting several businesses, investing in rental real estate, traveling the country and working full time.

Get involved and make an impact. Make mistakes and learn from them. Earn a bunch of money, invest wisely, and give it all away. Just don’t write off the Midwest!


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