Sunday, April 05, 2009

Talent: Keeping The Main Thing The Main Thing

Talent remains the top priority for Memphis.

It requires us to align our energies and our strategies, but we run the risk of our penchant for big project answers to our problems – whether it is downtown redevelopment, neighborhood revitalization or economic growth – to keep us from the hardest work to create, attract and retain talent.

It’s easy to build big projects. It’s not as easy to build the creative ecosystem, the culture of innovation and the connectivity that joins creatives into a force for a stronger future.

That’s why we have a tendency to oversimplify what it takes to attract and retain talent. In an op-ed column in The Commercial Appeal, a business leader ascribes to the new Memphis Greenline, formerly the CSX railroad line, the power to attract college-educated 25-34 year-old workers to our city. Previously, in another op-ed column, it was said that it was Shelby Farms Park that would be the magic answer.

The Thing

Here’s the thing. These outdoor recreational opportunities are important, but they won’t magically pull people into Memphis. They are indeed the markers that talented workers require if they are to consider a city, but they only keep us in the game.

After all, young professionals say they are looking for a city that is green. This doesn’t just mean we should have a new walking/biking trail and a new park. It also means that we have to exhibit green behavior, sustainable practices, less sprawl and better transportation policies.

That’s why Memphis has reached the point where everything that we do needs to be evaluated within a lens of talent, every investment needs to be analyzed to determine if it creates or attracts talent and every new program needs to be weighed by its impact on retaining talent.

In other words, talent is the great issue of our city today. Because of it, we’re posting comments made by Leadership Memphis official Letitia Robertson last week:

The Lessons

Today’s theme is talent, and it’s been a painful week for University of Memphis fans, because we have been reminded of the harsh realities about talent in today’s economy.

In Coach Calipari’s decision to move to Kentucky, we’ve been reminded of how difficult it is to keep talent that the whole country is competing for.

In the responses of the recruits and players, we have been reminded that today talented people are gravitating to where there are other talented people.

In December, you were told by Carol Coletta that in today’s highly competitive economy, the single most important indicator of success for a city is the presence of talent – college-educated talent. To some, this is interpreted as meaning that we should recruit and attract more of 25-34 year-olds to Memphis.

Losing The Game

That’s one piece of it. But the truth is that in the battle of talent, we are having problems competing.

The better option for us is to play to our strengths, and that’s why creating talent in Memphis is more important than attracting talent. We talked earlier this year about Memphis’ distinctive bulge in students when we are compared to the 50 top metros in the U.S. In other words, while other areas of the country in the coming decades will be facing serious workforce shortages, we will not have that problem. If – and it’s a big if – we can move these students to a line receiving a college degree and into the economic mainstream. After all, in the end, Memphis City Schools is in the talent business.

There are serious reasons that we need to be focused on the 105,000 students in its classrooms – religious reasons, charitable reasons, and social reasons – but set all that aside for the moment. The biggest reason that we need to treat these young people as our talent assets rather than as problems is because it’s in our own self-interest.

Remember back to the City Dividends presentation by Carol. If we can increase the percentage of college-educated Memphians by only 1 percent, it will create $1 billion in economic impact.

If we had a $1 billion company knocking on our doors and talking about coming to Memphis, we would give them tax incentives, we would romance them, and we would beg them to move here. We have a $1 billion opportunity if we can only get one percent more of our people out of college. And it’s worth keeping in mind that we have about 125,000 people in our community who have attended some college but did not graduate, so perhaps we can start with them for a short-term win while also concentrating on the students in our city schools classrooms.

#1 - Talent

While we have focused on the four dimensions of successful cities in the past four class days and again today – you remember them: distinctiveness, innovation, connectivity, and now talent – the truth is that talent is the thread that is holds our competitive fabric together.

So, today, we’ll talk about the importance of creating, retaining, and attracting talent – creative, entrepreneurial and yes, mobile talent. This is why every metro in the country is focusing on how to get and keep more 25-34 year-old college-educated workers. Keep in mind that while this group is highly coveted, they are also highly mobile. And cities like ours who want them and want to keep them have to prove that they have the kind of quality of life that these talented workers say they are looking for – clean, green, safe, and tolerant.

Here’s my editorial comment for the day: you kicked off your year with comments by Geoff Calkins of The Commercial Appeal, who talked about our tendency to project our own lack of civic self-worth onto our sports programs.

As you remember, he said that was the reason that we shrugged our shoulders and said, why, of course we lost the NCAA championship game in the last few minutes; of course, the Grizzlies can’t make it into the playoffs; of course, we don’t have a National Football League team. Now, I guess we could say, of course, we couldn’t keep Calipari.

Our Special Gift

It’s easy in our city to feel overwhelmed by its challenges and undervalued as sources of change. But as our new president has said, we are the ones we have been waiting for. The most exciting things happening in Memphis today aren’t coming top-down from leaders of government, the Chamber of Commerce, or high-profile civic groups. Rather, the best reasons to be excited about Memphis are the number of grassroots and neighborhood programs begun by people like you who care about their city and are determined that it can be better.

It’s what Geoff called “Memphis’ special gift.” He said that what he loved about this city is that “people care and look out for each other. Sometimes in the midst of the drumbeat of fear and negativism here, I have to stop and remind myself what I love about Memphis: the opportunity is there for all of us to shape Memphis. Every one of us can make a difference. It’s not that we have an obligation. It’s a gift. It’s an opportunity that doesn’t exist in other places. You can easily get involved in what gives your life purpose and meaning.”

That, too, is a theme for this day. In fact, it’s the theme for this year. You are our leaders. You are uniquely prepared to know what levers for change we need to address. You are the people you’ve been waiting for.


Anonymous said...

“people care and look out for each other..."

You know, this is part of the problem, too. I like to think of myself as a talented person (30 years old, Ph.D, decade+ progressive responsibility in my field), but I'm leaving Memphis because of the nepotism that seems to form the basis for most professional and social interactions here. Despite my abundant qualifications, I have seen job after job go to lesser-qualified, better-connected individuals. This has nothing to do with effective networking, rather it finds its basis in long-standing family and social connections that cannot be undone by MPACT or other organisations seeking to develop young professional talent. As much as I like Memphis and would like to stay, it seems fundamentally backwards and I am no longer willing to sacrifice my professional ambitions just to help it limp along. Sure, I'm going to find better-qualified competition in my new home, but I'll also find the diversity and creative energy that Memphis seems to be driving away.

I wish y'all the best of luck, but the Greenline is too little, too late for me.

Anonymous said...

Let's talk frankly about what brings younger talent here (though not as frankly as the previous poster)

Music, BBQ and Booze bring more young folks to Memphis than anything else. Sure a greenline will be quite a perk, but nothing speaks more than a lively entertainment district, loveable dive bars and really friendly people. Once they are hooked, you have to give them long-term affordability, and guarantees of personal safety so they can grow roots.

Anonymous said...

anon 2, take a deep breath. He went to KENTUCKY. There are only about 4 other schools that wouldn't lose their head coach for that opportunity and their names begin with North Carolina, Kansas, UCLA and Duke. There are plenty of rational reasons to bolt memphis, but UM losing John Calipari isn't one of them. he was here for 9 years, took the team to great heights and left for arguably the most prestigious job in college b'ball. He never promised he would stay forever. GTF over it.

The Architect said...

I laugh when I see articles on retaining talent from Memphians such as you. While I enjoy reading your blog and always find insightful comments, I read it with a skeptical eye. Because several weeks ago, I emailed several Memphis business and social leaders, including yourself, asking for guidance. I WAS looking at attending the U of M for urban planning, and I wanted to get on board with the community movements towards revitalizing Memphis. I simply asked for references to point me in the right direction. I received replies from only 2 people, and you were not one of them. So while you talk a great talk, how much are you yourself willing to walk the walk and do the same things that you are telling your readers to do? I sincerely hope that I am an isolated incident.

Zippy the giver said...

Looks like this one got posted twice.
You say it's not easy to build the creative system, but, if you ask real creatives, they'd tell you it's THE easiest thing there is.
You're right about there being no Magic Thing for Memphis, sadly, I think it would take a Magic Bullet in the heads of a lot of people blocking the way to get that culture freed here. Sorry bout that but I've been here quite a while, and while i know there are some outstanding people here, there are too many doorstops and time wasting distractions here that lead to nowhere and nothing but waste.
Smoking is being banned everywhere else in the US, but, somebody posted that 25-35 year olds (that we talk about getting like sandbagging results and a deck stacking cheat) only want to drink and gamble, wrong demographic, but, yes, Memphis has all it's eggs in the wrong baskets.

Exhibiting "green behavior only for the sake of stacking that deck is a ridiculous proposition and is a disingenuous effort at best. Green parks won't "keep us on the game", if that's how we think from the top, we are not even in the damn park.
The reason we need to treat students at MCS as humans instead of cattle or vermin is because to treat them as we have is an atrocity, the results are in. Don't blame their parents, Memphis government has subverted every effort to bring enlightened education to them and their children while keeping them in an economic and psychological trap.
Painting gold paint over a turd Memphis created will not make it gold, yet here we are, talking about attracting instead of developing and talking about developing as if we don't know if it can be done, when all over the country, it gets done.
But I forgot, we have to reinvent the flippin wheel every single time.
Young people want to be able to have friends, have them over, go out with them and be healthy, Memphis lack of diverse and also GOOD clean eating establishments with workers who actually practice HYGENE, which has been around for a few thousand years, is a nonstarter.
I saw a health department inspection approval posted on a wall in a restaurant that roach poop on the dang inspection approval and you could smell the supernasty bathroom more than the kitchen I was standing in. Not a good sign.

You're also right about things to get excited about not coming from the top, the game here is to see how long a grassroots campaign can go before it is squashed like a bug by the top.
I don't get excited about anything here anymore.
In fact, I'm starting to wonder if I died and I went to hell and nobody old me I died.
But I still have certainty that Memphis can get better, it could get worse, but, not much, it has a lot of "upside potential".
Normally that is good, but, in a stagnant place, not so much. Memphis is stagnant.

Anonymous said...

In response to The Architect and in defense of Smart City:
I was looking into the urban planning program at UM for the same reasons and asked for guidance. He emailed me back with some encouraging words, although I had to be pretty persistent and patient, but that's the case with most people. Sorry you didn't have the same experience.

Smart City Consulting said...

The Architect:

Sorry, we can't find an email from you.

Anonymous said...

you want to learn to be a PLANNER???



why doncha try a job with some esteem and a more secure future, like valet parking attendant, or assistant greenskeeper?

The Architect said...

I actually sent 2 on 2/2 and 2/17 (to tjones and info, respectively). But the point of my posts are not to point the finger solely at you, but rather raise a higher level of accountability to all who are trying to move Memphis forward. There are great ideas, but they mean nothing if they stay on paper. We all know this, but it takes greatness to put these into practice.

Smart City Consulting said...


We still can't find either of them. If it's not too late, please send again to Thanks.

Smart City Consulting said...

To the anonymous poster with the behavior of a 13-year-old trying to talk dirty. We don't moderate this blog because our readers are thoughtful and have insight into these problems, and we want to encourage a conversation. We'd appreciate your finding some other place to post your inane, juvenile obscenities so the rest of us can talk. You disrupt our day, and we would hate to have to moderate all comments.

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