Area Economy

Attracting young talent is a state economic development priority

February 27, 2015
| By Lou Glazer |
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Conventional wisdom is that people follow jobs. So the most effective talent attraction and retention strategy — once again, according to conventional wisdom — is to create jobs.

If conventional wisdom were right, Michigan should have reversed the net outmigration of young professionals since the end of the Great Recession, where we have gone from a decade of job losses to creating jobs at a somewhat higher rate than the nation.

But that hasn't happened. The Michigan Bureau of Labor Market Information & Strategic Initiatives in its Winter 2015 Michigan Economic and Workforce Indicators and Insights reports Michigan experienced a net migration loss in 2013 of 3.5 percent of people ages 22 to 34 with a bachelor’s degree or higher. That’s worse than the 3.1 percent loss in 2009 — the depths of the Great Recession. (Net migration losses were 4.4 percent in 2010, 2.0 percent in 2011 and 2.2 percent in 2012.)

It has been clear for some time that young professionals, in making decisions about where to live and work after college, look at far more than a job. Quality of place and being welcoming are essential components in retaining and attracting young professionals.

Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg in a terrific Financial Times op ed described what is driving location decisions by recent college graduates this way: “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.”

It’s a lesson Michigan policymakers need to learn quickly. Most everyone agrees retaining and attracting young talent is a state economic development priority. But we aren't going to be successful unless we work on, as Bloomberg lists, protecting personal freedoms, prizing diversity, offering an abundance of cultural opportunities and great parks, safe streets and extensive mass transit.

Michigan is a laggard in all of these.

For many the way to create jobs that are supposed to retain and attract talent is to adopt business-friendly policies. But those business-friendly policies mainly mean cutting taxes — particularly for businesses — which in turn starves public investments in what really matters to retaining and attracting talent: an abundance of cultural opportunities and great parks, safe streets and extensive mass transit.

So we don’t offer young professionals the places — mainly vibrant central cities — they are looking for. Neither are we welcoming.

Talent is both diverse and mobile. If a place is not welcoming, it cannot retain and attract talent. People will not live and work in a community that isn’t welcoming.

The failure of the Michigan legislature — despite strong business support — to end legal discrimination against gays and Forbes ranking West Michigan one of the worst places financially for African-Americans are just the latest examples of an unwelcoming Michigan.

The bottom line is straight forward: The places with the greatest concentration of talent from anyplace on the planet win! Without places where people want to live and work and without being welcoming to all, it is almost certain Michigan will not be a magnet for talent. End of story!

Lou Glazer is president of Michigan Future Inc.

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