Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Young Workers Determine Which Cities Win In Race For Economic Growth

It’s always a good day when our work leads to an article on page one of the New York Times, as it did Saturday, when it was reported that Atlanta was launching a new campaign to attract the “Young and Restless.”

Basing its program on a report issued by our firm in conjunction with Portland economist Joe Cortright, the Atlanta Chamber of Commerce drew a line in the demographic sand, laying out the argument that the wave of 25 to 34 year-old college-educated workers moving to the Georgia capital is proof positive of its strong quality of life, its thick job market, its civic vibrancy and the importance of its 45 colleges and universities.

It should also serve to be a wake-up call for Memphis. As heated as the competition is now for these highly-coveted young workers, these may soon be the “good old days,” because by 2012, for every new worker added to the U.S. labor force, two will leave.

Talent Magnet Report

Early on, Memphis saw the beginnings of this wave, and Shelby County, City of Memphis, and the Memphis Regional Chamber commissioned the “Memphis Talent Report” by this firm to recommend what our city should do to attract and retain these workers. Although Memphis got there early, and some of the recommendations were followed up on, much remains to be done.

Following that report, we conceived the Memphis Manifesto Summit, sponsored by Memphis Tomorrow and co-hosted by our firm’s founder Carol Coletta and the ubiquitous author/economist Richard Florida. It was the first national meeting of the so-called creative class where 125 people developed what cities had to do to be attractive to them. It received widespread national coverage and is included in the paperback edition of Mr. Florida’s highly influential book on the “Rise of the Creative Class.”

From all of this, we have learned one inarguable fact. An economic development plan without a talent strategy is not an economic development plan at all.

That’s because more and more, it is these young workers who are defining which cities are winners and which are losers. They are the best-educated, adaptable, mobile, and relatively inexpensive resources for cities.


Most of all, talented young workers are not simply any workers. They are also more likely to be entrepreneurs, forming the next generation of companies driving economic growth.

The seismic shift in Memphis’ future is more than just the one we know about - New Madrid fault. There’s also the seismic shift that will occur in labor markets, because rapidly disappearing are the days when economic growth was powered by a ready supply of more and more workers.

All of the major forces that drove the economy in the past four decades will change. The tide of baby boomers will be retiring, the participation of women in the workforce won’t increase, and the college graduation rate will plateau. All of these trends are exacerbated by the fact that there are eight percent fewer 25 to 34 year-olds in the U.S.

In other words, at a time when Memphis must come to grips with the fact that it is competing with cities on a global scale, it also must compete for the young workers that will make it possible. In the end, it’s about how we make our city more appealing to these young adults, who have options unimaginable to previous generations.

Memphis’ Standings

The New York Times wrote about Atlanta’s impressive success in attracting these young workers. In case you were wondering how Memphis stands in this competition, here’s our city’s comparisons to the other 49 largest metro areas:

• Memphis is below in college attainment, ranking 38th.
• Memphis ranks behind all of its competitors in the percentage of its adult population that have four-year college degrees.
• Memphis has 167,251 of these young workers, 13,000 fewer than in 1990.
• Memphis ranks 49th in percentage of young 25 to 34 year-old whites and 1st in African-Americans.
• For every six 25 to 34 year-olds who move to Memphis, five leave.

The top five cities for young people who move to Memphis are Nashville, Chicago, Los Angeles, Dallas and Knoxville. The top five cities who attract people from Memphis are Nashville, Atlanta, Dallas, Washington, and Little Rock.

In addition to the “Young and Restless” report for Atlanta, we have worked with Mr. Cortright on reports for Providence, Portland, Tampa, Richmond, and Philadelphia. So what does all of the research, focus groups, and evaluation tell us that’s important for Memphis?

What They Want

It tells us this about these young workers:

They want a place with a green ethos, a place with outdoor recreational choices that are unique and first-class.

They want a place where they can be themselves, a place known for its tolerance, its diversity, and its welcoming attitude toward new people and new ideas.

They want a place that is vibrant, a place with vibrant neighborhoods, a vibrant downtown, and lively “scenes.”

They want substance over hype, they are Internet-savvy, and they will check the facts and assess cities with their peers.

They want a place that shows them they are valued, a place where they are invited into public discussions, where they are the subject of news coverage, and where their voices and interests are heard.

They want a place that is the best in something, a place that is world-class in some way and that offers something that is first, best, and only.

They want a place where government works and takes care of the basics, especially public transit and parks.

They want a place that is authentic, a place that isn’t homogenized and a place with a strong brand rooted in reality, not based on slogans and bumper stickers.

Fuel For Success

The ability to capture these young people is already fueling the successes of cities like Austin, Atlanta, Portland, and Charlotte, where their numbers are increasing five times faster than the nation as a whole.

In the coming years, Memphis is faced with some hard choices, most notably what it will take to compete in the global economy and what it will take to wean its economic development strategies from cheap labor and cheap land mantra. If nothing is changed, one thing is certain: Memphis will be relegated to the also-rans of American cities, the cities that could never seem to get their acts together in the face of transformative changes.

In this new world, the focus of economic development must be on talent – how to attract it, how to educate it, and how to retain it. The stakes have never been higher, and Memphis takes its first steps by building on the economic importance of being different and by executing strategies already in reports aimed at making it a magnet for talent.