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Why real estate’s agent-centric broker models are doomed

By comparing the numbers of broker models, it becomes apparent that not only is one clearly more financially feasible, but could lead to a restoration of the nation’s faith in the industry.

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Agent-centric broker models are set up to lose and fail

Last October, I entered my 44th year as a licensed real estate agent, the last 36 of which have been as the designated broker and owner of the family’s real estate investment firm. I’m second generation. The date on my first license was barely 60 days past my 18th birthday. I aspired to be merely wet behind the ears. In those years – BA-C (Before Agent-Centric) – more business was done by less people in terms of transaction quantity than is dreamed of these days.

I was blessed (unknowingly) with the rarest of opportunities, starting from below the ground up in a hugely productive real estate company, family owned – read: Dad – and run on the Broker-Centric model. Below, the two models are defined through the lens of my experience on the inside of both.

Broker-Centric (BC) model defined

There are many factors, but the main thing is that the broker is in charge in every sense of the word. They produce the bulk of the leads, pay for them, and in many cases, design their in-house distribution. They pay for office space, and the various machines/computers necessary to do business. They don’t charge agents for much, if anything. They take virtually all of the financial risk and liability.

Commission splits in the BC model of yesteryear aren’t even believed by most modern day agents. Exclusive listings paid 20 percent of the listing side, while exclusive agency and open listings paid 15 and 10 percent respectively. The selling agent made 40 percent of the buyer side commission. There were variations of this, but the range of pay between companies was relatively narrow.

If looked at in terms of sales volume per agent, or GCI (gross commission income) if you will, the BC model requires significantly fewer agents than the Agent-Centric model requires. Adjusted for inflation, agents made more in terms of dollars than they do today at double or more the commission splits. For example, in a five year period from 1965 through 1969, just 25 to 30 full timers and eight to 12 part timers closed over 1,000 sides a year, every single year. I saw the last three in person, from the inside. The average full timer in that firm made more than twice the median household income. Twice.

Agent-Centric (AC) model defined

The AC model is, in my experience the perfect business model. That is, if you prefer the tail waggin’ the dog. It’s based upon the idea that all agents know what they’re doing and will use the time available efficiently and profitably, to their own benefit. Lead generation is typically left up to the agent.

The commission splits are typically 50 to 100 percent higher than agents toiling in a BC-based brokerage. It often requires two to five agents to equal the GCI produced by agents working under the BC model. There are exceptions, but most broker/owners employing the AC model use the mud on the wall principle. They pray that hiring the max number of agents they can house will produce the the bottom line profit they require to keep the doors open.

Brokers in the AC model often rely on newbie agents who begin with a 50 percent commission to make up for the more highly paid ‘experienced’ agents. Typically these rookies will do two or three deals in their first 6-12 months, then disappear, only to be replaced with the next rookie.

The irony of real estate teams working for an AC model firm

Note: There are kinda sorta hybrid models out there, the ones with various profit sharing and other agent-participant type models. Some are highly successful, but can’t (at least by me) be categorized as either BC or AC. I’ll leave thoughts on those outliers for others who are more informed about those models than I.

I have to believe that there are hundreds of brokerages out there who are more than a bit perplexed not only by the success of the teams they employ, but the bottom lines of the team owners. If, for example, we use the team model I ran for years, agents made a maximum of 50 percent commission split. Let’s compare that to John Doe Real Estate, a traditional company operating on the AC model, with around 50 agents. However, of those 50 agents, 10 of them, including Debbie, belong to a team owned by Debbie. Four are buyer-agents (BA), some are support staff, T/A, tech guy, team ‘manager’, etc. Debbie is a listing demon. This year, she’ll list 100 homes. Her team will close 250 sides. Fully 91 of her listings will sell and close escrow. The median price per closed side was $200,000.

The remaining 40 agents working for John’s firm closed another 280 sides, with all sides computed at three commission as a constant.

His agents make 80-90% commission splits. We’ll use an average of 80% if only to give John a fighting chance against Debbie (laugh track would be perfect here). Also, we’ll allow the median price on John’s other agent sales to be $220,000 a side, 10% higher than Debbie’s team. Let’s compare the two:

Outlining Debbie’s year:

On her 250 closed sides, here’s how Debbie did. She’s at a 90% commission split from John due to her phenomenal production.

So, 159 closed buyer sides at $200,000 median price = $954,000 GCI for the brokerage. $858,600 is Debbie’s ‘team’s’ share. Her BAs pocketed $429,300, which is an average income of six figures per BA.

Then, take 91 closed listing sides at $200,000 median price = $546,000 GCI for the brokerage. $491,400 is Debbie’s share. Debbie does all the listing and none of the selling. Furthermore, she doesn’t take referral fees from her own BAs when she gives them her own buyers.

Debbie’s take for the year after her team’s commissions are paid, comes out to $920,700. That’s before overhead of support staff, marketing, etc.

Outlining John’s year:

First, his take from Debbie’s efforts amounts to $95,400 from her buyer side transactions. Her closed listing sides netted him another $54,600. Total harvested from Debbie’s team = $150,000. But how about his other 40 agents? How did he do with them? Don’t forget, his other agents’ median closed side price was $220,000 – 10 percent higher than Debbie’s.

They closed 280 total sides. That’s a GCI of $1,848,000. John’s take from that GCI was $369,600.

Add to that his share of Debbie’s production – $150,000 – and John’s grand total comes to $519,600.

I want to tip this as much to John’s side of the table as possible, so we’re gonna assume he’s not part of a franchise operation. Therefore, he doesn’t have to shell out a percentage of every closed side to the franchise big guys. He does, however, pay for office space and the usual expenses that come with that. He has a marketing budget. With an office of 50 agents, he has a pretty sizable phone system and support staff – neither of which is free. Even if his operating expenses are the same percentage as Debbie’s (clearly a stretch to make a point) he grossed just a bit over 56 percent of what Debbie did.

The practical side

John gets a taste of 530 closed sides. Debbie gets a taste of just 47 percent of the total business done by John’s brokerage, 250 sides, yet almost doubles his gross income. Since most of John’s agents are lucky to last a year or two, he’s constantly spending time and money to replace them.

Debbie’s people? She has an impressively long waiting list to be a BA on her team. Think about it. Sure, they work very hard, but they show up looking professional, grab that day’s buyer leads, show property – follow up with the help of support staffand make six figures. Debbie’s operating expenses, as a percentage of GCI, are lower than John’s. Duh.

The numbers really get silly when the team is under the umbrella of a ‘100% commission’ AC office. I personally know of a couple of highly successful team owners working under that system, and it’s almost like being given the key to the broker’s bank vault.

What brokerages have done for 25 years

Does this explain some of what brokerages have been doing for 25 years? Though many have been called brilliant for their forays into related vendor ownership like title, lending, escrow, etc., they did that in self defense, for Heaven’s sake. If they hadn’t done that, most would have already been face down in the water, completely forgotten.

Then, there’s the 100% commission approach. I love this one, as it’s really the brokers conceding victory to the poor caliber of agents they’ve been hiring and overpaying for the last several decades. Is it any wonder they’re failing right and left with a model that promotes the hiring of woefully unqualified, unproductive agents who will be paid roughly the same as highly qualified and productive agents? As Dad loved to ask at this point, “What genius did the math on this one?” Indeed. At least when every agent is paying the broker/owner a monthly fee for their existence, the broker makes something.

The AC model is a loser from day one

The AC model is a loser from day one and always has been. I suspect it will continue to be so. But there’s another major reason, aside from the math, that doomed the AC model before it started – the AC model violates the real life Risk vs. Reward reality.

I’ll give you a choice of two ways to go as a new agent.

  1. In one, you get paid 80% commission on every dollar you produce. The brokerage takes virtually all of the liability, pays all the major overhead, and provides you with a suitable office atmosphere in which to work. For the most part, you’re responsible for generating your own business. Not much, usually nothing, is handed to you in terms of business. You close business based upon your own efforts, or else you starve. Of course, you look at that $220,000 median price at three percent commission split 80/20 in your favor. Then, you say to yourself, “Self, there’s no way I won’t close less than 20 sides in a year. That’s $105,600 — I’m in!!”
  2. In the other scenario, you get paid 40 to 50 percent commission. You must follow strictly written protocols, do the same thing every day, be a BA, and make just 50% commission. The thing is that your buddy down the hall, the one who works as one of Debbie’s BAs, made that much and wasn’t expected to generate any business whatsoever on his own. Hmm. What to do?

Then there’s the disturbing fact that the typical agent makes only $30-something thousand per year on their own. But you’re not like those agents, right? No-sirree-Bob, you’re three times that good. Since these brokers are willing to take virtually all of the business risk, yet pay me at least 80% commission, why wouldn’t I wanna go for it? I get the best of both worlds — extraordinary pay without the commensurate risk.

And there’s the rub. 

Gravity wins every time it is challenged

When we jump off a very high place without a parachute, we’re gonna die. Gravity eventually wins every time it is challenged. The same with the physics of economics. Whenever the market produces a business model challenging the laws of risk/reward, it’s as doomed to a bad ending as the guy jumping off the cliff’s edge thinking he can flap his arms and fly.

Brokers and team owners/leaders are the ones taking the risks. They should be the ones reaping the lion’s share of the profits. When brokers as a group thought they could ignore the undefeated law of risk/reward, it was akin to jumping off the cliff while flapping their arms.

Most agents simply can’t generate enough real estate business to matter. That’s not my opinion, it’s my experience since 1969.

Wanna know how feeble the typical real estate agent is? In one of California’s best years since the end of WWII, I think it was 1977, the state’s turnover rate for real estate agents was more than 2/3. If that’s not a convincing indictment of the newly installed AC model, nothing is. If you had a pulse back then, you printed $100 bills. Yet two of every three agents were either out of the business or with another broker, hoping against hope that the change of address – and not them – would make the difference.

Once and for all, let’s run from the AC model. That one change in our industry would do more to restore the public’s faith in what we do than anything else I can think of. When the vast majority of real estate agents simply don’t produce the results for which the public hires them, it’s time to reject the model creating that reality.

Jeff Brown specializes in real estate investment for retirement, has practiced real estate for over 40 years and is a veteran of over 200 tax deferred exchanges, many multi-state. Brown is a second generation broker and works daily with the third generation. With CCIM training and decades of hands on experience, Brown's expertise is highly sought after, some of which he shares on his real estate investing blog.

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14 Comments

14 Comments

  1. Jonathan Dalton

    March 18, 2013 at 9:33 pm

    AC model doesn’t work at all. Unless you’re John Hall (which was around for 30-plus years before the merger), Realty One, Homesmart, etc. etc. etc.

    There are no absolutes either way. The most recent examples I can think of, and the ones which I know you have in mind, failed not so much because of the split or the broker- or agent-centric model but because of a lack of business planning and dedication to success.

    • Jeff Brown

      March 19, 2013 at 11:55 am

      I think the key stat in this discussion is the empirical evidence demonstrating that the BC model not only produces more closed transactions, but with significantly few agents. That allows the brokerage a much improved bottom line, and the public benefits from an improved level of expertise and professionalism.

      In the down times far more AC firms go down in flames than do the BC practitioners. This is evidenced in the higher percentage of teams using BC surviving vs in some cases, the companies for which they work.

    • JoeLoomer

      March 19, 2013 at 12:00 pm

      Jonathan, how much do you think culture played a role – if any?

  2. Kathy Howe

    March 18, 2013 at 9:54 pm

    Lani, I love the article. I’m watching one broker in my area who is new with his franchise and he’s “crushing it” as Michael McClure would say. He’s close to opening another office and… let’s just say, he ascribes to the BCentric model.

  3. Lee

    March 19, 2013 at 1:53 am

    A number of really good points here. A few thoughts of my own… The real losers with AC models are the consumers. With the BC model, brokers focused on the consumers as their customer and agent as “employee”, under the AC model their customer becomes the agent. Brokers must trim their expenses down so far to maintain profitability that they are forced to skimp on vital areas such as marketing and training. This could result in the consumer receiving poor advice and customer service, and limited market exposure. Also, sales people don’t make always the best business owners or leaders, but the AC model forces them to become a marketing expert, a tech expert, a team leader and an accountant. I also believe this compensation shift has kept the real estate industry behind the times in terms of technology, and innovation. Brokers/owners are the ones who should be focused on the big picture, and agents should be focused on selling and servicing their clients. The AG model removes from the broker the ability to invest in technology, and moreover the incentive to innovate at all. All that said, your numbers prove why this a very hard bell to un-ring.

  4. JoeLoomer

    March 19, 2013 at 7:46 am

    “Note: There are kinda sorta hybrid models out there, the ones with various profit sharing and other agent-participant type models. Some are highly successful, but can’t (at least by me) be categorized as either BC or AC.” – I assume KW falls in this arena in your thoughts, Jeff. I would say THIS would be the future model for Brokerages, not a return/resurgence of the BC model. After all, half a billion in profit share and #1 in agent count in the country has to count for something more than just being a hybrid out there. I believe the KW model works because the central theme to virtually all the training is “lead with revenue.”

    Navy Chief, Navy Pride

    • Jeff Brown

      March 19, 2013 at 11:46 am

      If I’m anything, Joe, it’s results oriented. KW is a hybrid, and their universally solid results speak for themselves. “Lead with revenue” — Let me write that one down. 🙂

  5. Dan Desmond

    March 19, 2013 at 11:12 am

    The bottom 80% of agents out produce the top 20% in sales and commissions to the broker. The industry thrives on turnover because the training and products is often a second income stream. The motivating “GURUS” need them to sell their services to and NAR and affiliates need the masses for dues and to sell services to. AC real estate is a circus.

  6. HelpUSell RealEstate

    March 19, 2013 at 2:46 pm

    Jeff, we couldn’t agree more. Help-U-Sell Real Estate’s business model has been broker-centric since the company’s founding in 1976. We believe that it’s the best real estate model because: 1) it’s more efficient;
    2) it creates agents who have had more transactions and, therefore, more experience which enables them to better serve buyers and sellers; 3) it’s more cost-effective; 4) it creates a more manageable workload for agents; 5) brand consistency is better controlled when one person (the broker) is in charge of
    all advertising and marketing. Most importantly for us, however, a broker-centric model enables our offices to offer consumers choices, ultimately saving the consumer money compared to the old-fashioned agent model. That model, while slowly fading away, seems to exist only to support the inefficiencies of that old business model. Great insight, Jeff. Thanks for sharing.

  7. Tim White

    March 20, 2013 at 2:49 pm

    “It’s almost like giving the keys to the broker’s bank vault…” So true, but that;s only half the story. If you factor in all the liability that flows to the broker (insurance deductables, attorney’s fees, Franchise, MLS and Board dues (in my state the broker is responsible for collecting fees and they’re on the hook for said fees if they can’t collect), etc., etc., it makes the idea of running an AC-centric operation even more absurd. Bottom line is that the broker in this model assumes the bottom rung on the ladder (Franchise first, then agent, and then bringing up the rear is the broker). It’s sado-masochistic–but a sad reality for most brokers.

    One other thing: The last time I sighted a true BC model on the east coast was pre-millenium. Can you site some examples of where these models still exist in the wild?

  8. JAMES HARRISON

    August 4, 2015 at 12:09 pm

    So, 2 years after this article, how is this model doing today in a HOT market?

    • Lani Rosales

      August 5, 2015 at 5:11 pm

      James, Lani here (I'm the Editor in Chief) – I've spoken with the author and he affirms that this original editorial stands true today, even in this market.

      Thanks for chiming in!

  9. Ryan Powell

    March 1, 2016 at 12:34 pm

    This article is one of the most comprehensive and thorough that I’ve read on the subject. Especially like the part where you describe most models as either “Agent Centric” or “Broker Centric.”

    However, 3 years later, now in 2016 it’s worth pointing out that there is actually a hybrid model I’m considering being a part of. 75-100% commission split in favor of agent, $129 monthly fee all inclusive (no transaction fees, software fees, vendor fees, insurance costs etc) plus buyer and seller leads on demand. Firm is called Mont Sky Real Estate in NYC … have included their recruitment site below.

    Best of luck and thanks for the article again.

  10. Pingback: Real Estate Agent Vs Insurance Broker | ToRealestate

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Opinion Editorials

Learning in the workplace: An exploratory mindset can foster efficiency

(OPINION) A typical business model is to run a tight ship with fear of inefficiencies, but cultivating learning can bring the best out of organizations

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Left side of brain showing calculations and right side of brain with colorful paint, resembling creativity and learning.

Despite living in an ever-changing world, many people assume that learning, be it academic or vocational, more or less stops with the conclusion of formal education. Harvard Business Review’s John Hagel III posits that an exploratory mindset, rather than fear, is the most effective way to cultivate an ongoing interest in learning – something that, as Hagel reveals, is more beneficial to a modern world than business owners realize.

Inefficiency is perhaps the most common fear of any business owner, and for good reason- Efficiency is tied directly to profits. Because of this, the majority of industries focus on establishing protocols, training employees rigorously, and then holding them to their prescribed models of operation.

And while those models can be extremely restrictive, the fear of inefficiency prevents employers from fostering creativity and personal learning, prompting some to go so far as to penalize employees who color outside of the lines. Indeed, Hagel describes one such interaction affecting an acquaintance of his: “As someone who was excited about improving the company’s supply network, she created and began testing a new intake form to assess supplier reliability.”

“She was fired for not using the standard procurement forms,” he adds.

But Hagel’s acquaintance wasn’t acting maliciously, at least by his description; she had simply identified a bottleneck and attempted to fix it using her own expertise.

We’ve written before about the importance of trusting one’s employees, implementing flexible procedures, and even welcoming constructive criticism in the interest of maintaining efficiency in a growing market. This is exactly the point that Hagel drives home – that holding employees to standards that are optimized for maximum efficiency discourages flexibility, thus culminating in eventual inefficiency.

“In a rapidly changing world with growing uncertainty, front-line workers find themselves consuming much more time and effort because they have to deviate from the tightly specified processes, so scalable efficiency is becoming increasingly inefficient,” says Hagel.

The irony of rigidly efficient practices inspiring inefficiency is clear, but the process of moving away from those structures is fraught with missteps and a general lack of understanding regarding what truly motivates employees to seek education on their own.

Let’s be clear: No one is advocating for a Montessori approach to work, one in which employees spend more time licking the walls and asking questions about the sky than they do attending to the tasks at hand. But employees who have been encouraged to explore alternative solutions and procedures, especially if they are supported through both their successes and failures, tend to be more ready to “scale” to increasingly changing demands in the work environment.

Ultimately, those employees and their expertise will create a more efficient system than all of the best-thought-out procedures and guidelines one can muster.

“Cultivating the passion of the explorer enables innovative thinking in the organization at a whole new level,” Hagel summarizes. “But harnessing that opportunity requires us to move beyond fear and to find and cultivate the passion of the explorer that lies waiting to be discovered in all of us.”

It is both Hagel’s and our own hope that businesses will find ways to appeal to that same exploratory passion – if not because it is in the best interests of employees, then, at least, in the name of improved efficiency.

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Opinion Editorials

Art meets business: Entrepreneurship tips for creative people

(EDITORIAL) Making your creative hobby into a business is an uphill battle, but hey, many other people have done it. This is how they crested that hill.

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creative artist doodle

If the success of platforms like Etsy has proven anything, it’s that creative people can launch successful businesses, even with relatively few tools at their disposal – and for many hobbyists, this is the dream. That doesn’t mean it’s easy, though, and what pushes someone from creator to businessperson can be hard to pin down. In one study, the determining factor was encouragement by family and friends. Others make a slower transition from hobby to side hustle to full-time employment in the arts. Whatever the motivating factors, though, artists interested in becoming entrepreneurs need to hone an additional set of skills.

It’s All In The Plan

From one perspective, artists know how to follow a plan. Whether we’re talking about a knitter who can work through a pattern or a novelist outlining a chapter and building characters, creative thinkers also tend to be very methodical. Just because someone can create or follow a plan, that doesn’t mean they know how to develop a business plan. Luckily, there are plenty of guides to starting a business out there that contain all the basic information you’ll need to get started.

Business development guides are full of valuable technical information – what paperwork you’ll need to file, the cost of licenses, and other similar details – but they can also help you answer questions about your goals. Before you can even start writing a business plan, you’ll need to consider what service or product you want to offer, who your clients will be, and what differentiates your product from others out there. This last question is more important than ever before as more people try to break into creative fields.

Assess Your System

Once you know what your business goals are and what products you’ll be offering, you need to consider whether you have the ability to scale up that operation to fulfill market demand. There aren’t very many art forms that you can pay the bills with fulfilling commissions one at a time. The ability to scale up the artistic process is what made the famous painter Thomas Kinkade so successful during his lifetime when many others have failed. For the modern artist, this might mean asking whether you can mechanize or outsource any of your activities, or if you’ll be doing only exclusive work for high-paying clients.

Find The Right Supports

Every business needs support to thrive, whether in the form of a startup accelerator, a bank loan, a community of fellow professionals, or some other organization or resource. Artists are no different. If you’re going to develop a successful creative business, you need to research and connect with supports for working artists. They may be able to help you access tools or studio space, get loans, market your business, or connect you with a receptive audience. These groups are expert repositories of information and you don’t have to be in a major city to connect with them.

Find Professional Partners

You’re a talented artist. You have a vision and a plan. That doesn’t mean you have to go it alone – or even that you should. To build a successful creative business, you’ll want to partner with people who have different strengths. Not only will these people be able to lend their expertise to your operation, but they’ll make you a better artist and entrepreneur by lending a critical eye to your approach. Just like a major corporation won’t thrive if it’s composed of yes-men who are just along for the ride, your creative undertaking needs internal critics whose ultimate aim is to support you.

Stay Inspired

It’s easy to get bogged down in business logistics and lose your creative spark. In fact, that’s why many artists are reticent to monetize their work, but you shouldn’t let that fear hold you back. Instead, put in the effort to stay inspired. Read books about art and creativity, keep a journal, or go to museums. Experiment with new forms. Be willing to push your own limits and know that it’s okay to fail. Many businesses that aren’t tied to creative output flounder and struggle to find their way, and there’s no reason your business should be any different. Still, the surest path to failure is stagnation and losing your spark. That’s worse for any artist than a sloppy business plan.

Artists are often told that they aren’t meant to be entrepreneurs – but the most successful businesspeople are creative types, even if they aren’t typical artists. Use that outside-the-box thinking to your advantage and make a splash. If you want to do more with your art, you owe it to yourself to try.

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Opinion Editorials

Why tech talent is in the process of abandoning Austin

(AUSTIN TECH) There is no single reason Austin tech talent is packing their bags, but a handful of factors have collided to create a tenuous situation.

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austin tech talent leaving

“Nothing’s keeping me here” is a phrase we keep hearing around town. Being in the center of the tech space, we’ve been able to keep my finger on the pulse, and what we thought was primarily housing that is driving folks out of town turns out to be far more insurmountable than we could have ever imagined.

A perfect storm is brewing as the housing market collides with a dramatically transformed workforce that has become accustomed to working remotely and shifted priorities.

Last time Austin was bleeding talent, the year was 2011 and most investments were focused on early stage startups and there weren’t enough open roles that were senior level, so we started losing people to competitive markets. In response, we built a massive employment hub (the Austin Digital Jobs Group (ADJ)) and volunteered hundreds of hours to help make Austin a magnet for high quality employers.

This time around, we expressed to the Group of over 55K members that we were frustrated that people were confiding in us that they were leaving (or considering it). Some are even people that we all imagined to be part of the very fabric of Austin tech. We feel helpless this time.

Many of these talented people said that the soaring housing prices in Austin had them eyeballing smaller towns in Texas, or worse, their hometowns outside of the state. There are only so many times you can try to buy a house, get rejected, or get outbid on 22 homes before you start looking at other places. Only so many people will accept a billion percent rent increase at renewal time before thinking that going back home to Louisiana’s lookin’ pretty good.

This week, Austin CultureMap reported that Austin now ranks number two among the most overvalued home markets in America.

Tesla is getting ready to open their Gigafactory, Oracle is moving their headquarters to Austin, and Samsung is currently trying to get buy-in from city officials in Taylor so they can build their mega plant near Austin. Home investors and firms from all over are salivating.

It all feels both exciting, yet overwhelming when you’re going to buy a house here, only to get outbid by $150K over asking price from an investor in California. It’s been demoralizing for so many.

Because we also own a massive real estate publication, we’re firmly in touch with that sector, and brokers in Austin are telling us that the summer was out of control and overheated, but they’re already seeing that hyper-activity slow a bit.

Housing alone isn’t enough of a reason for an entire sector to be packing up or dreaming of leaving. So what gives?

At last count, a thread in ADJ on this topic is at 806 comments, and I personally received several hundred more via direct message with people in tech explaining why they’re leaving or considering leaving.

There are challenges within the city limits of Austin that have bubbled over like crime and separately, the contentious issue of houselessness – it’s an ongoing and very serious issue that has people leaving downtown, but not necessarily leaving the surrounding areas.

So if housing isn’t the exclusive driving force, how has that problem combined with the employment market shifts? How has the job market changed in such a way that talent is ready to hit the eject button on this town? It boils down to a changing talent pool, fractures in the hiring process, a shift in priorities, and a lingering brokenness in the entire process that is exacerbating all other conditions.

Let’s dig into that further.

Because of the global pandemic, remote work has become a staple in the tech industry, teams adjusted and realized the office is more of a luxury than a requirement, and many large brands swear that they’ll never require their employees to come into the office again.

For that reason, tech workers’ expectations have been forever changed. Fully remote options will drive the market for years to come, and hybrid options or flex work hours will also be how large tech firms attract and retain talent – ping pong tables and chill vibes will be less of an appealing sales pitch.

The pandemic has also shifted the talent pool to include everyone in America – if all workers are remote, employers no longer have to look just to the local workforce. This talent pool expansion is a double-edged sword – if an Austin tech company can look to Nebraska for workers, then remote workers can look outside of Austin to other budding tech hubs, potentially shifting the entire environment. That’s the main driver for Austin brands continuing to hire in Austin, lest the entire ecosystem fail.

All that said, a disconnect in the job market in Austin tech remains. Holdouts from attitudes and old systems of the past linger on.

A theme we continue to hear from high quality candidates is that employers have increasingly unrealistic expectations. You already know the stereotype of job listings that say they’re entry level but require a decade of work experience. But as budgets tightened in the face of uncertainty, Austin tech companies are becoming phenomenally great at hiring someone to do three jobs that pay less than one. One of our Group members asserted that employers are looking for turnkey employees. It used to be that employer job descriptions were a realistic wish list and that if you hit over 60% of them, you might get an interview. Now people believe that the requirements are becoming unrealistic and if you meet less than 100% of them, there is zero chance of an interview. Many have complained that hiring managers and recruiters continue to not be aligned, slowing the process repeatedly.

The timing of the acceleration of unrealistic expectations has locals feeling like the pandemic created conditions that allowed for employers to take advantage of job seekers who must be desperate since the world is upside down. I don’t personally believe this has anything to do with the pandemic, rather it is a continuation of an ongoing trend.

If you think this is an exaggeration, just this week a job seeker let me know that a recruiter sent them a job description that required the “ability to code in any language.” WTF. The recruiter was serious. Try telling me this isn’t out of control and I will laugh right in your face, friend.

Another serious point of contention in Austin is that salary levels are not increasing anywhere near the skyrocketing living expenses.

Many believe the salary levels are a decade old and simply can’t keep up with the market conditions in Austin and while we’ll leave the “you are a remote worker, you shouldn’t earn as much since you moved to a less expensive locale” debate to another day, we will firmly assert that this problem will hold back the tech innovation and the overall economy in Austin.

In that massive thread in our Group, one member asked, “So I guess a question is: do we accept the idea that Austin is now only for those making 6 figures??”

What is so disheartening about the salary conditions is that changing this couldn’t possibly be done overnight – it requires time and structural changes, and the bigger a company is, the slower it is to turn the proverbial ship.

Meanwhile, numerous people retired early during the pandemic, or began freelancing or consulting full time. Many of these people aren’t likely to return to the workforce under current conditions, and they feel like they have less roots in Austin – they can live anywhere now. See how remote work has caused a ripple effect?

Do you remember when some tech executives in Austin reluctantly sent employees home as the pandemic hit, flippantly warning that it wouldn’t be a coronacation!? Bad behaviors like this and other employee treatment during the pandemic haven’t and will not be forgotten – the memories will remain as fresh as the time you got shoved by that bully in elementary school. You may have forgiven, but you’ll never forget. Trust has been broken.

Trust was also broken during the pandemic when people lost what they believed to be stable jobs. It has created a certain trepidation in the marketplace.

The pandemic has forever altered all of our lives as individuals. Thousands died from COVID-19, and those of us left behind lost loved ones. We were all sent home with no job security. Many of us became homeschool teachers and somehow also had to keep up with our careers. We were forced to share spaces with our partners, our children, our parents, our family.

Some would think all of this is a recipe for resentment, but in the majority of cases, what has happened is a serious shift in priorities to favor the family, to appreciate quality time, to find solace in more quiet time and a less full calendar.

People tell us they don’t intend on going out for drinks after work when they’re called back into the office – it turns out we actually like our kids or partners now that we’ve gotten to know them, or that we value our newfound connection to old hobbies. The priorities aren’t fleeting – this pandemic has changed us.

Because of this fundamental change in who we are, ongoing problems in the employment market are now magnified.

“Isms” still plague the hiring process. Ageism continues to be a very serious problem in Austin tech, for example. People tell us that they’re still experiencing sexism, racism, ableism, and every other sort of discrimination. In 2021. It’s unbelievable. You can say all of that is simply perception, but in this scenario, perception truly is reality. And because our priorities have shifted, our giveashitters are pretty low when it comes to tolerating bad actors.

That same shift has also lowered tolerance levels for burnout. One member in the Group pointed out that after the market crash in 2008, resource levels were depleted – and here we are in 2021, they haven’t been restored. People were burned out before the pandemic, and now they’re moving to the country to work remotely and begin healing this burnout that is coming to a head.

It’s difficult to deal with ghosting (be it computer-aided or overworked recruiters) when you’re already burned out and thinking you’re the only one. It’s giving this sector a terrible reputation that is spreading.

Resources aren’t the only factor here that is stuck in 2008. Companies were so used to getting a flood of applications for every single job listing, their ATS (applicant tracking system) filters were implemented accordingly. The volume of applications has dropped, yet the filters remain overly restrictive. They put their ATS on auto-pilot once upon a time, and it remains that way, yet they continue to reach out to us in confusion, asking us where all the applicants are.

In the eyes of tech talent, the hiring process has deteriorated. Simultaneously, in the eyes of companies hiring, the process has been improved. Enhanced.

The disconnect here is not in the unrealistic expectations previously outlined, or the rising opacity in salaries, but in the actual mechanics of the hiring process. Even smaller companies have added additional rounds of interviews and ridiculous red tape in what is an effort in vain to compete with the Googles of the world. There’s a lot of what I would call “playing office” going on, with non-technical hiring managers hiring for technical roles, or unrelated staff being roped into panel interviews to weigh in on whether or not someone is a “culture fit.”

The process has become lengthy and demanding with endless personality tests, whiteboard tests, Zoom calls, questionnaires, more phone and video calls, aptitude tests, and so forth. Most people have come to accept these as hoops to jump through, but the practice of having job seekers do extensive unpaid projects as part of their job application is creating deep resentment and a growing resistance. No one expects to shake a hand and get a job today, but doing a 12 hour assignment that is due in 24 hours is unreasonable, especially unpaid and with no promise of their intellectual property being protected.

It started off as a way to aide candidates into demonstrating their true skills and it was simple. But over time, the practice has “evolved.” It feels to some like every Austin tech recruiter and hiring manager went to some evil underground conference a few years ago and were brainwashed into thinking that if they ALL assign abusive tasks, no one in the sector will notice because they’ll just accept that it’s “how things are done now.” But that’s not happening and the overly complicated process combined with other market factors is driving seriously qualified tech talent out of Austin.

The hiring process has continued to degrade and for no good reason. We actually built ADJ in a way that would directly connect hiring manager and job seeker, promoting the concept of simplifying the hiring process. Yet here we are.

The final nail in the coffin is that candidates and employers are blaming each other for a power imbalance, and thinking that their situation is unique. A feeling of isolation is growing due to peoples’ inability to openly discuss this process – both hiring folks and job seekers.

The bottom line is that numerous market conditions have converged to create a scenario where people are tired and simply won’t settle anymore. Expectations have changed. And we have changed as people.

We will inevitably get hate mail because of this editorial and folks will say that the very publication of this piece will push people out of town, but we would argue that if no one makes an effort to diagnose the growing illness, it will metastasize.

This editorial was first published here on September 09, 2021.

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