Today’s American workforce is more mobile than ever. Led by the young and talented within the Millennial Generation, these individuals more often than not (2/3 according to a recent study) choose where they want to live first and then seek employment and career opportunities. Gone are the (good old?) days where a college graduate would start work at a business in their early 20s, slowly make their way into middle management and then ride out their final years before retirement as an executive in the same company that hired them in the first place.
Today’s talented workers are looking for something different. I’ve heard their career paths appropriately described as “rock climbing,” instead of the more traditional climb up the corporate ladder. To climb the ladder one must stay within their own field or company, something that seems anathema to a group that yearns to try new and innovative things. Rock climbing, as you know, isn’t such a straight shot. To move up a mountain one must sometimes move laterally or even downward before ascending to new heights. That’s what makes the climb so unpredictable, and so much fun.
In a career sense, the rock climbing metaphor manifests itself in lots of different ways including career changes, start-ups, and juggling several opportunities at once. It also means that those participants in the practice aren’t beholden to a single business, industry, or location.
From an economic development perspective, the changing demographics are extremely important yet often overlooked. Cities, regions and states that look to promote themselves as good places to do business seldom place enough emphasis on these “new normal” demographics. Too often we see cities continuing the same old hunt that they have always used for attracting corporations, arming themselves with tax abatements, job training funds, and infrastructure grants (NOTE: they seldom pay off) in an attempt to woo the next Toyota plant or financial institution. A heavy emphasis on tax structure and regulations remains dominant in most strategies.
However, a quick analysis of the cities that are gaining population, increasing college attainment scores and becoming innovation hot spots shows that the place itself is becoming a far more important economic development driver than what you might find in a city’s traditional tool box. Talented workers are seeking places that offer authenticity, good physical design, walkability, cultural depth, an innovative vibe and more.
Places like Portland, Seattle and Austin have figured this out. It’s time the rest of us did, too. In my home state of Michigan, we continue to talk about creating jobs as if cutting marginal tax rates were the only things that matter. Meanwhile, many of our core cities are woefully underfunded, arts funding hovers around 48th in the nation, parks are closing and our infrastructure crumbles. I know from talking with city leaders around the country that similar scenes are being played out in states from east to west.
A Better Way to Attract and Retain Talent
I won’t take this time to hammer you with all the things that can make a city more attractive. If you want details, please check out my earlier blog posts and links. Instead I would like to introduce the concept of 1,000 Nights as a gauge for how competitive your community is in attracting and retaining talented young workers. It’s admittedly a bit gimmicky but, hey, so are tax abatements, so cut me a little slack. Here goes, with a shout out to Paul Schutt from Model D.
A young person graduates college at 22 years old. She immediately sets her sights on a place where she wants to live, one that provides a fun and spirited environment for her and her friends, since young people nowadays often travel together. Since she won’t be getting married until she is 32, unlike her parents who married much earlier, she will be looking for lots to do in the coming ten years. Things like cultural offerings, recreation, parties, urban explorations, adult learning experiences will be at the top of her list.
10 Years x 2 Nights of Fun per week x 50 weeks per year = 1,000 Nights
This is what she is looking for. Does your city make the grade for her? If not, I hate to break this to you, but she probably won’t come to your town. And if she comes and then gets to 200 nights and runs out, then she will most likely move on. Remember, her job skills are transferable and her mind set is that of a rock climber. Moving on from a ‘dead spot’ is in her blood.
All of this becomes increasingly relevant in job creation because companies and entrepreneurs know where the talent is moving. Perhaps Rich Karlgaard, publisher of Forbes magazine, summed it up best:
“Start with this proposition: The most valuable natural resource in the 21st century is brains. Smart people tend to be mobile. Watch where they go! Because where they go, robust economic activity will follow.”
I couldn’t agree more. The quality of our cities must play a larger role in the discussions about job creation.