Young blood: the challenge of turning Millennials into Memphians

Agencies and organizations across the city are getting creative in their efforts to attract and retain the highly coveted young-professional demographic, knowing these Millennial workers bring with them fuel for economic growth and urban revitalization. 
When thinking about the future of Memphis, city leaders are trying to think young. The quest to increase Memphis’ numbers of “young professionals”—a group that demographers generally define as individuals 25 to 34 years old who possess a college degree—has led local government, corporations and nonprofits to work on making Memphis a destination of choice for the country’s most recent entrants into the workforce.

Young professionals have become increasingly key to economic success in metropolitan areas. Memphis doesn’t have enough, and the competition for high-talent college students and young professionals is fierce.

Forecasters estimate that 55 percent or more of the jobs in Tennessee will require education beyond high school by 2025, but only about 30 percent of adult Tennesseans have a post-secondary degree or certificate. Only about 23 percent have bachelor’s degrees or higher. The national averages are 35 percent and 28 percent, respectively.

In Shelby County, about 36 percent of adults have at least an associate’s degree, and about 30 percent have at least a bachelor’s degree. For comparison: Davidson County has about 43 percent and 36 percent, respectively.

The gap has spurred countless organizations across the state to support the Drive to 55 movement, hitting the challenge from several angles.

Some efforts focus on ensuring that today’s children grow into young professionals by promoting college readiness and lowering college tuition. Other efforts, such as Tennessee Reconnect, encourage adults of all ages to complete programs of higher education.

Another focus is on attracting and keeping 25- to 35-year-olds who already have college degrees.  In some ways, they’re considered the lowest-hanging fruit, and the sweetest.

Why? Because they’re there for the taking, because Memphis has lost too many of them in the past, and because they are expected to stir countless ripples of positive impact wherever they land.

Have Talent, Will Travel
Millennials are an incredibly mobile bunch. More than a million college-educated 25- to 34-year-olds move across state lines each year. That presents an important contrast to a long decline in how often Americans move on the whole. And the older Americans get, the less likely they are to move.

Those are findings that Portland, Ore.-based economist Joe Cortright detailed in an October report called “The Young and Restless and the Nation’s Cities.” Cortright spoke about the implications of his research to a rapt audience of Memphis leaders recently at an event organized by the Greater Memphis Chamber, Leadership Memphis, New Memphis Institute, PeopleFirst and the City’s Office of Talent and Human Capital.

In the past, Cortright explained, young professionals have used their mobility to follow the best jobs they could find. But recent research has identified a shift in priorities.

“One of the things we know about the migration decisions of well-educated young adults is they’re increasingly putting a premium on the kind of place that they live in … (saying) ‘I’m going to choose the place I want to live and then look for a job there.’”

So the question becomes: What sorts of places do young professionals want to live?

More and more, they want the heart of a vibrant city—an urban core where they can live, work and get around by public transit, walking or riding a bike. They prefer a dense mix of residential and commercial development, exciting entertainment options and appealing public spaces for exercise and hanging out.

These preferences appear to have triggered a major change in how big companies decide where to locate and how venture capitalists decide where to invest. Increasingly, both are following young professionals to downtown areas, where overall job growth is outpacing employment in suburbs.

“This is the first time that has happened, as best we can tell, in the last six decades,” Cortright said. “So it is showing up in where people are choosing to locate, where companies are choosing to locate, where investment is flowing and now where jobs are growing. Having a strong city center comes out to be critically important to economic success.” 

But building an appealing sense of place is much more complicated than checking off a carbon-copied list of urban amenities.

“You can’t do the same thing everybody else does and expect to be successful,” Cortright cautioned. “You’ve got to build on those things that make your city and its DNA and its people different from everywhere else …. Think about what it is that makes Memphis special, because that will be at the heart of the strategy for your community.”

Authenticity and Personal Connection
As President and CEO of the New Memphis Institute, Nancy Coffee spends a lot of time thinking about what makes the city special. These authentic assets are what make people choose Memphis as home, which is what New Memphis is all about. The nonprofit is focused on how to attract and retain talent for Memphis, as well as how to develop leaders and engage our city’s talent in civic life. Their work includes helping corporations use the city’s strengths to recruit and welcome employees, but their focus has increasingly moved to that integral millennial generation.

Barbecue and Beale Street may be the key for some folks. But Coffee, a vegetarian transplant from Colorado, finds the most essential element to the Bluff City is the way Memphis is integrating new people and progressive ideas into a home-grown culture that is rich in history.
Embark, a New Memphis training program specifically designed for twentysomething professionals, combines social and civic connection
“This is not a city where you can ignore the past,” Coffee said. “We really believe that you have to know where Memphis has been if you want to be part of where it’s going.”

The institute has an array of leadership-development, philanthropic and social programs that incorporate local history lessons as they engage Memphians of all ages. But it has in recent years made engaging young professionals core to many programs and initiatives – as have many agencies and organizations.

The central example is their Embark program, a training program designed specifically for high-performing twentysomethings. The three-month experience brings young people together to connect with one another, enhance professional skills, but also to learn about the city and ways they can shape its future.

 “What we know works to build community attachment is to build ownership, to instill a sense of personal responsibility,” Coffee said. “And that works no matter whether you’ve been here for two months or you’ve been here for 20 years. If you know you can make positive change in the city, you’re more likely to stay here.”

After completing Embark, New Memphis Institute particularly measures participants’ affinity for the city, asking what they see as a key question:  How likely are they to recommend living and working in Memphis to a friend? The results have been promising, showing those who participated were 109 percent more likely to recommend Memphis after the program.

Jordan Huntze’s introduction to Memphis came through St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, where her youngest brother received treatment as a child for a rare type of brain tumor. The circumstances were difficult, but fond memories of the people at the hospital and of the city stayed with Huntze, now 25.

The Texarkana, Texas, native earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Central Arkansas and worked as a traveling leadership consultant for two years, based in Indianapolis, before deciding it was time to put down roots elsewhere. A job with the American Cancer Society helped to seal her decision to move to Memphis in July.

She has enjoyed the fun that the city has to offer, but even more she has enjoyed a sense that she has something to offer the city. That feeling has grown as she has attended classes in the Fast Track program at Leadership Memphis, where Dr. Jan Young, director of the Assisi Foundation of Memphis, was a recent guest speaker on breaking the cycle of poverty.
“Throughout my life I’ve always … found myself drawn to, I would say, the underdog – that project that might be a little bit tougher but that I feel like has a lot of great opportunity in it,” Huntze said.

“The longer I’m in Memphis, the more that’s how I feel about it. Memphis is an underdog, but it has so many great things going for it. And I want to be a part of making Memphis better and a part of making people proud to live in Memphis.”

Loving Memphis from Afar
As agencies and organizations across Memphis get creative with efforts to attract and retain the highly coveted young-professional demographic, Mayor A C Wharton is pulling an often-overlooked source of insight into the quest: Memphians who have moved away.

Wharton calls them Memphis expats, and it seems they’re eager to pitch in.

“You never quite leave Memphis,” said 20-something Sanket Karuri, a White Station High School graduate who went on to Yale University in Connecticut and the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom. “You know, you are only from one place.”

Karuri now lives in New York, where he has a dreamy job at Columbia Business School, working with major corporations on behavioral research that then guides innovations in education. He thinks of the friends and mentors he found in Memphis—particularly his ongoing involvement with Reach Memphis, a nonprofit that helps students from public schools to attend elite summer programs—as pivotal to his success, and he enjoys opportunities to give back.

“I wouldn’t be where I am today if not for very kind and caring Memphians who—whether they be teachers or Reach Memphis volunteers or any number of people in the community—really stepped up and made me believe that I could go out and pursue my dreams,” Karuri said. “There are so many causes in Memphis that are near and dear to my heart, I’ll certainly be involved with Memphis for as long as I live.”
The 2015-2016 Memphis Urban League Young Professionals (MULYP) Board
That makes Karuri an ideal target for expat outreach, according to Douglas Scarboro, who has led the effort as Director of the City’s Office of Talent and Human Capital (and was recently named Regional Executive of The Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis Memphis branch). Scarboro enlisted Karuri to help build a network to keep expats stay connected with the city and one another.

The network is in what Karuri calls the “information-gathering phase,” but work so far has included organizing a reception of about 35 Memphis expats at a private home in New York and another of more than 100 at the Hattiloo Theatre in Memphis.
Both events included participant surveys, as well as question-and-answer sessions with Wharton. Lively discussions covered such issues as education, transportation, economic development and how expats can help.

“The vibe in the room was wonderful,” Karuri said, recalling that several participants stayed late at both receptions to keep the conversation going. “That sense of connection among people who leave Memphis, to Memphis, it’s just so strong.”

An Upside to Brain Drain
The idea driving expat outreach follows the logic of universities’ emphasis on alumni engagement—top institutions reap huge rewards in the form of brainpower, networking connections and financial donations when they keep successful alumni involved. 

But Scarboro’s research has found relatively few cities that actively engage former residents. Cleveland, Detroit and New Orleans (particularly after Hurricane Katrina) are among the cities that have made it a priority. And in those cases, the focus has seemed to be on convincing expats to return home.

In Memphis’ case, the emphasis is as much or more focused on keeping expats involved and willing to use their expertise and whatever resources or influence they have come to command to benefit their hometown.

Leave it to Memphis expat Adam Hanover to describe the opportunity in economic terms.

Hanover, a 27-year-old graduate of Memphis’ Ridgeway High School, went on the University of Pennsylvania and then on to Wall Street. He now works in New York City for the Carlyle Group, which in 2014 ranked as the largest private-equity firm in the world.

If Memphis doesn’t reach out to people who love Memphis and can help the city, Hanover said, “those valuable assets are just sitting there.”

Cities that engage expats in different fields and locations can gain an advantage in several possible scenarios. For example, an engaged expat who makes decisions about conventions or conferences might be more likely to advocate for Memphis as a destination. Or an engaged expat with financial expertise might serve as an adviser to an economic development board.

“In the past, the mayor might have had to pay someone like me some sort of salary to move to Memphis and help him implement certain strategies,” Hanover said. “I’m arguing that you don’t have to do that because people like me want to do things, effectively, for free.”

YP Searching for Same?
Are you a young professional looking for ways to get involved? Aside from those mentioned, here are a few opportunities to click on and learn more about.

Memphis Urban League Young Professionals is a service-oriented leadership organization for individuals 21-40 years old that supports the objectives of the Urban League.

SoundCheck is a council of young professionals within the Greater Memphis Chamber. The council’s mission is to help different generations of business leaders to connect and engage on initiatives important to the city’s future.

Undercurrent is a group that hosts monthly social events at Memphis hotspots. You don’t join. You just show up.

Read more articles by Amy French.

Amy French is a Memphis-born freelance writer and communication consultant who got her start as an award-winning journalist for The Huntsville Times in Alabama and The Charlotte Observer in North Carolina.
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