Closing the Talent Gap

Our city’s best chance for success in the future.

photograph Robert Kneschke |

It’s hard to think of an issue that’s been discussed more in recent years than talent.  

Usually, the “T” word is used interchangeably with “young professionals,” referring to 25- to 34-year-old college-educated men and women. Every U.S. city is competing for this demographic group, because they are highly educated and entrepreneurial, but most of all, they are mobile. At a time when most cities’ percentage of college-educated workers accounts for about 60 percent of economic success, every city is targeting the group most willing to pick up and move.

So far, about 15 cities — usually with positive reputations and thriving labor markets — are the big winners, soaking up most of the young professionals and leaving most U.S. cities in a battle to keep the ones they have while scratching to attract more. Among the 51 largest U.S. metros, between 2006 and 2012, the Memphis MSA fell from #36 to #46 in the percentage of the population who are 25- to 34-year-olds with college degrees.

Almost everyone has an opinion on why the Memphis region lags in the battle for talent, but finally, a poll by the PeopleFirst Partnership — part of Memphis Fast Forward — answers the question of what this key group thinks about Memphis and Shelby County. For the first time, organizations involved in attracting and retaining talent can now build plans based on the facts about young professionals’ likes and dislikes.

The Yacoubian Research poll showed that:

  • Nearly six in 10 young professionals gave a grade of “excellent” or “good” to overall quality of life in Memphis and Shelby County.
  • Almost one in five said they are “very likely” to recommend to their friends that they live here, and those with graduate degrees are twice as likely. 
  • Young professionals see the community’s major strengths as 1) family and friends, 2) downtown Memphis entertainment district, 3) overall cost of living, and 4) access to green spaces.
  • Major weaknesses are 1) quality of K-12 schools, 2) access to safe/low-crime neighborhoods, and 3) availability of
  • well-paying jobs.
  • The best ways to keep young professionals from leaving and to encourage their friends to move here are increasing the number of well-paying jobs, increasing access to safe neighborhoods, and improving K-12 schools.

Compared to their counterparts in national polls, Memphis young professionals are homebodies — 62 percent have lived here more than 20 years or for all their lives. And they are settled down — 56.1 percent are married and 26.3 percent have school-aged children.

Meanwhile, U.S. Census Bureau data show that contrary to conventional wisdom, Memphis remains the place of choice for 25- to 34-year-old college-educated men and women. In fact, 57 percent of the 48,111 people in the MSA who make up this key demographic group live in Memphis — or 27,423 people. That compares to 11,088 who live outside of Memphis in Shelby County: Collierville has 2,652, Germantown has 2,180, and Bartlett has 2,287. Meanwhile, 5,159 young professionals live in DeSoto County.

Too often, our civic response to attracting and retaining this group is to say that we simply need to do a better job of marketing to them, but if one thing is clear about this particular demographic, it is that they are highly suspicious of institutional, top-down messages. That’s why campaigns to market to them so often fall flat.

Instead, the people whose opinions have the most influence with millennials are other millennials. That’s why images of millennials making waves, asking impertinent questions, and suggesting and showing there are different ways to do things have such impact. It’s also why we need to amplify all of the highly visible tactical urbanism and grassroots activities being led by young professionals and enable even more. More than anything, it sends a new and different message about Memphis to a group crucial to its future. 

The PeopleFirst polling contained another nugget that suggested a $600 million economic development opportunity. According to the polling, 63 percent of young professionals in Memphis and Shelby County are white and 31 percent are African American. In a county that is 53 percent African American and in which 52 percent of 25- to 34-year-olds are African American, it only makes sense that a key competitive advantage is for the Memphis region to be a hub of African-American talent.

It is in the closing of that gap — bringing the percentage of African-American young professionals to the same level as whites — that Memphis and Shelby County can have more wealth, more entrepreneurs, more disposable income, and more overall success. To do less is to pursue economic success in the future with one hand tied behind our backs. 

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