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.


Aaron said...

Letitia : Well said. That is a huge asset for Memphis. If you're passionate about making our city a better place and your drive is strong, it's only a matter of time that you'll be connected to the right people. Memphis is wonderful in this regard!

There is still improvement for providing a better funding mechanism which could help fast-forward projects.

Zippy the giver said...

What are the greatest ten things that have happened in Memphis that have attracted and retained or better yet created top talent from Memphis?

What are the things that people have seen in the last 3 years that say to them, "Memphis is making big strides at turning into a city to live in"?

So far I have seen nothing I can contribute to Memphis due to being blocked out by all the drawbacks.
That is frustrating to say the least.
I am not alone.
I've met many people who say the same thing, many are looking to move.
I feel like moving here was a big rip-off or a scam.
Sadly, I'm not alone in feeling that either.

Zippy the giver said...

Oh, and I forgot to mention, the opportunity to lookout for each other and make things better for the city/town/place you live DOES exist in other places, MEMPHIS DOES NOT HAVE A MONOPOLY ON ANYTHING. That really needs to be made very clear.

"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."

That only works in a place where there is cooperation and communication from the top.
Maybe that is improving?

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