Making an Impact

A new survey shows what Memphis needs to retain - and lure - young professionals.



Zach Hoyt is emblematic of the battle for talent that consumes cities today.

Living in Iowa City after graduating from Iowa State University, he and his wife packed their bags and moved to Memphis. Like two-thirds of their highly coveted generation, they are drawn to places where they want to live and then they decide where they want to work.

He moved to Memphis slightly more than six months ago, settled in the South Main Historic District, and set out to find a job. Even before then, he had already gotten involved in downtown activities but admitted to being surprised at how predisposed Memphians are to beat up their hometown.

"I first visited Memphis on a whim in 2006," he said. "The trip was over quick but left a definite impact. We were back a year later on an impulse, seeing more of the city. My wife and I were both laid off around the holidays and we drove down for a weekend to blow off some steam.

"We loved the city," he continued. "There were cool neighborhoods, great music scenes, awesome local restaurants, and just a unique vibe to the place. Everywhere we went, we found warm, genuine people. So now, 10 months later, we've sold our house, quit our jobs, and we are diving headfirst into Memphis. We aren't moving to a city for a job, we're moving to a city because we love it and we're basically rebooting our entire lives."

The 25-34-year-old demographic to which Hoyt belongs is the Gold Standard for cities in the knowledge economy. They are the most educated generation in history, the most entrepreneurial, and the most mobile. It's not that older workers aren't important. It's just that younger ones are willing to move.

Memphis has been losing an average of five of these coveted workers daily for the past 16 years, but MPACT Memphis sees no reason that this should happen without a fight. Memphis' organization of young professionals is now armed with information about what they like about Memphis, what they want to change, and what it would take to keep them here.

The next step, according to MPACT executive director Gwyn Fisher, is to spread the talent gospel among local groups and agencies and to develop a clear plan of action to address the priorities — and the problems — identified in the survey of 1,500 people.

"Quite simply, MPACT asked the questions that no one was asking," says Fisher. "Memphis is committed to recruiting, retaining, and developing young talent, but no one had thought to ask that young talent exactly what they want in their city. Quite frankly, we were very surprised we were the first to go after this data. All the good intentions and passion for the cause won't do us a lick of good unless we know where to start, where to focus our energy. Memphis now has the in-depth data that no other city has, and we intend to put it to good use."

Despite conventional wisdom to the contrary, 7 percent of the young professionals are proud of their city. About two-thirds say they belong in Memphis and that it's a good place to raise a family. Topping the list of things that make them miserable: race relations, crime, self-image, education, and lack of an environmental ethos.

According to MPACT survey results, "the #1 concern of young professionals is jobs, jobs, and more jobs." Seventy percent of young professionals who are considering a move say it's for better job opportunities.

"There is of course room for improvement in education, crime, and public transportation, but those issues aren't severe enough to drive us out of Memphis," says Fisher. "No matter how much we love our city and are proud of our amazing assets, a serious lack of job opportunities is the major catalyst driving young professionals out of Memphis."

The good news is that "there are lots of ways that MPACT can work with other organizations to move the needle like green issues and access to the arts, but MPACT isn't in the job creation business. We are relying on employers, trade groups, and chambers of commerce to find innovative ways to create and maintain quality jobs that will stop the brain drain."

Best of all, she says, is that "what's really cool about the results is that every idea and wish of young professionals is perfectly achievable through collaboration and creativity." That would indeed be impact Memphis needs. 

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