Talent Scout

Attracting young professionals to Memphis means more than compiling blueprints.



photograph by Ivan Mikhaylov | Dreamstime

At a time when more than 60 percent of a city’s economic success is linked to its percentage of college-educated workers, Memphis has to step up its pace in the race for talent if it is to jump-start a stronger economy.

Few topics have been discussed as much in the past six years as talent, particularly the 25- to 34-year-old college-educated talent that is the Gold Standard for the knowledge economy, but it’s a rare day when official economic development organizations even mention talent, much less do anything much about it. Instead, work on talent is led by organizations like Leadership Memphis and New Memphis Institute whose work is not connected strongly to economic development plans.

It’s no wonder that the Memphis region, of the 51 largest U.S. metros, has lost ground when the 2012 edition of CEOs for Cities’ City Vitals is compared to its 2006 version:

The Memphis region toppled from #37 to #49 in the percentage of the population older than 25 with college degrees.  It was 26.3 percent in 2006 and 25.1 percent in 2012.

Memphis has fallen four spots to dead last in the ranking of percentage of creative professionals — from #47 to #51 with a decrease from 5.2 percent to 2.4 percent.

Memphis has fallen from #36 to #46 in the percentage of 25- to 34-year-olds with college degrees — from 3.8 percent to 3.6 percent.

Memphis is #43 in the number of foreign-born residents with college degrees. In the 2006 report, Memphis was #40 with 7.5 percent and fell three spots to 7.7 percent in 2012.

More than anything, the rankings point out the risk of running in place in today’s highly competitive economic environment: There are always cities lapping us.

Bike lanes and greenlines are important, and all cities are creating them because they are the “markers” that 25- to 34-year-old college-educated workers are looking for. Markers keep us in the game as these talented workers are deciding where to live, but to seal the deal, when we talk about being a “green city,” we have to do more than talk about amenities. Rather, it’s about a state of mind, an attitude, a lens through which we consider investments. It’s about new walking/biking trails, but it’s also about a developed Shelby Farms Park, a better riverfront, and an improved Overton Park, but it also means green policies, sustainable practices, less sprawl, better transit, revitalized neighborhoods, and better transportation policies.

The irony is that Memphis was a national leader on talent a decade ago. In 2002, the Memphis Talent Magnet was written in conjunction with Richard Florida (before he had written his book about the creative class). A year later, 150 creative workers from across the U.S. convened here for the Memphis Manifesto Summit, where they wrote the definitive declaration for what creative workers require from the cities that want them.

The reports became blueprints that were implemented in other cities, but few of the recommendations were pursued here. Central to both reports were the opinions of the target demographic itself, and as Memphis considers its future, there’s no better place to start than to ask ourselves the tough questions these talented workers are asking themselves.

For example, a local architect puts it this way: “I wonder, has the Chamber — or anyone else for that matter — ever placed themselves in the shoes of the young, educated individual who is scouting for employment, a place to live, and happens not to be from this area? If someone is moving from the Northeast (for example), how would they go about trying to sell Memphis against Nashville, Charlotte, Atlanta, and Dallas? I can make it even more direct: If I am offered the same job in Memphis, Nashville, and Charlotte, why should I choose Memphis? A place to start might be enforcing a rule: the interview is over the moment anyone in the room mentions the airport, ‘distribution center,’ or the historic local music scene.

“History is great,” continues the architect, “because it supports pride in the community, it allows for progress to be charted, and it illustrates where we are going. However, historic performance does not guarantee future results. Does this region think its historic bio is enough to support future growth? We may have a great historic music résumé and continue to use that to attract tourists, but a city’s musical roots and historic markers do little to support the actual band, artist, or composer alive now. We may have a great history of supporting entrepreneurs and supporting new business models, but that history does little to enable the living, breathing entrepreneur or small business owner sitting out there right now.”

To attract young talent, we should not only listen to the architect — but act. 

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