Area Economy

Priorities for attracting and retaining young professionals

July 26, 2013
| By Lou Glazer |
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In a recent Business Journal story, Paul Isely, chair of economics at Grand Valley State University’s Seidman College of Business, commented, “I think we’ve made some gains in the past few years, but we’re losing young workers, not bringing in outside talent, and we’re not increasing our rate of patenting. All that tells us that what we’re missing right now is the mix of talent.”

Exactly! Young talent is a key determinant of more than just entrepreneurial vitality. It is one of the best predictors of whether a state’s or region’s economy is prosperous now and in the future.

Rich Karlgaard, publisher of Forbes magazine, summed it up best: “Start with this proposition: The most valuable natural resource in the 21st century is brains. Smart people tend to be mobile. Watch where they go! Because where they go, robust economic activity will follow.”

So how is Michigan and West Michigan doing compared to other states and regions in retaining and attracting recent college graduates? To answer the question, we gathered data from the American Community Survey from the Census Bureau on where 25-34 year olds with a bachelor’s degree or more lived in 2011 (latest available information). Here is what we found:

Michigan ranks 13th in the number of 25-34-year-olds with a bachelor’s degree or more (for the rest of the column, we refer to this cohort as young professionals), compared to ninth for total population. The state’s share of the nation’s young professionals is 2.5 percent compared to 3.1 percent of the total population.

Most worrisome, Michigan is one of only four states to have fewer young professionals in 2011 than 2006, declining from 346,000 to 333,000 — by far the largest numerical decline. Nationally, 25-34-year-olds with a bachelor’s or more grew by 13.9 percent from 2006-11. In Michigan the decline was 3.6 percent.

The seven-county Grand Rapids CSA is home to 50,000 young professionals, of which 11,000 (22 percent of the region’s total) live in the city of Grand Rapids. The region ranks 48th out of 54 metros with populations of 1 million or more in the number of young professionals with a four-year degree or more compared to 43rd for total population. It is 34th in the proportion of 25-to-34-year-olds with a four-year degree.

College-educated millennials, more than any previous generation, are concentrating in big metros, with a high proportion living in the central cities. Chicago, which is the Midwest’s preeminent talent magnet, has 565,000 young professionals living in the region, 250,000 of them (second only to New York City) in the city. There are more young professionals in the city of Chicago alone than the 16 counties that make up both metro Detroit and Grand Rapids.

Milwaukee, like Grand Rapids, is a region with a population between 1 million and 2 million. It has 84,000 young professionals with 30,000 (36 percent of the region’s total) living in the central city. Metro Milwaukee ranks 19th in the number of young professionals compared to 35th in total population.

The evidence is clear: Quality of place, particularly a vibrant central city, is an essential ingredient in retaining and attracting mobile young talent.

So what is it that makes the New York City region and city by far the nation’s leading talent magnet? Certainly not low costs — taxes, housing, cost of living, etc., are among the highest in the country. It isn’t the weather. Nor is it necessarily just a job, although that matters. The region ranks 39th among the 54 metros with populations of 1 million or more in the proportion of those with a four-year degree or more that are working.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg in a Financial Times column provides an explanation of what matters most to attracting young professionals. He wrote:

“The most creative individuals want to live in places that protect personal freedoms, prize diversity and offer an abundance of cultural opportunities. … Recent college graduates are flocking to Brooklyn not merely because of employment opportunities, but because it is where some of the most exciting things in the world are happening — in music, art, design, food, shops, technology and green industry. Economists may not say it this way, but the truth of the matter is: Being cool counts. When people can find inspiration in a community that also offers great parks, safe streets and extensive mass transit, they vote with their feet.”

Protect personal freedoms, prize diversity, offer an abundance of cultural opportunities and offer great parks, safe streets and extensive mass transit. That is the priority list if West Michigan wants to be competitive in retaining and attracting young talent.

Lou Glazer is president of Michigan Future Inc.

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