The Memphis brand of 'young professional' makes its mark

As the city works to attract and retain young talent, High Ground takes a look at the unique experience of the working Millennial in Memphis. Read on to discover what keeps these individuals engaged, happy and successful in the Bluff City.
Memphis is not a buttoned-up city. It was built high up on muddy banks in a time when it was a jumping off point for the untamed West. A bit untamed itself, the city would, in time, give its best and its brightest to the world. And they weren’t buttoned-up, either, with their sideburns and pompadours, gold chain overcoats and bejeweled jumpsuits.

As we’ve striven lately to bring in the best and the brightest to lead Memphis into the 21st century and to claim its place as a leader in industry and art, we should take a look at what that "young professional" might look like.

In this monthly series, High Ground will get to know these men and women to find out what makes them tick, what drew them to the city if new, and what keeps them here if native. To get a head start, though, we’ve spoken with some experts, those in contact with entrepreneurs, leaders, job seekers and employers. While organizations such as the city’s Office of Talent and Human Capital and the New Memphis Institute seek to recruit and retain Memphis’ future, we hope to learn exactly what it is they’re looking for and what it is they want.

"We see that young professionals in Memphis want the same thing as young professionals want everywhere – they really care about working for organizations that make an impact, they want to see themselves as more than just cogs in a machine. They are really hungry to add to their skill set," said Mac Bruce, communications specialist with The New Memphis Institute. "For them, work isn’t just about income, it’s about personal enrichment, about fulfillment. Which means that having flexibility in their work schedules, and things like that, are things that these young professionals value more than their predecessors."

Meg Crosby has experienced this from both sides of the employment fence. Now a principle of the boutique human resources firm PeopleCap, Crosby was hired as Google’s first HR generalist in 2003, overseeing a department of only 14. The paragon of the tech world with its laid back office environment is held up as a benchmark by Millenials today.

"I think, in some ways, technology and the culture of technology really brought people to that understanding that smart, successful people don’t have to conform to a certain look or to a certain work environment or a certain culture … I think you’re seeing that across other industries as well," she says.

Scan the crowd on the street and your eye might automatically go to the tailored suit and the sculpted hair, the attaché case (a gift from the parents) and Windsor knotted tie. But perhaps your gaze should rest on the blue jeans and the faded Converse sneakers, the piercings and tattoos. Look again and pick the executives out – there’s Kat Gordon, owner of Muddy’s Bakeshop with her colorful wig; Clark Butcher, co-owner of Victory Bicycle Shop with his faded jeans and t-shirt; Kelly English of Restaurant Iris and Second Line in his chef’s jacket; Kellan and Davin Bartosch in their Wiseacre Brewing Co. coveralls; and Jamie Harmon of Amurica Photo Studios, bearded and with his shaved head covered by a tell-tale porkpie.

And maybe we shouldn’t even be looking in that crowd on its way into the office building at 8:30 a.m. Perhaps we should scan the evening crowd in a coffee shop or take notice of the young woman volunteering at a dog rescue on her lunch break.

Volunteer Odyssey is a weeklong program that has job seekers working with a different nonprofit each day as a way to network while helping the community. By design, or by default, those going through the program are looking to make a difference in the city. "They want something where they matter and where they feel like they make a difference and they’re doing something that they’re proud of," said Volunteer Odyssey founder Sarah Petschonek.

And it’s being done on their own terms, for the most part, as they seek that work-life balance. It’s a Zen-like approach to career where work e-mails might be answered on a phone from dinner with friends instead of from a cubicle on the 23rd floor of an office building. Copywriters and web designers are lounging on comfortable sofas to work from laptops from one end of downtown to the other.

"Some people would say this generation coming up behind us, they don’t work as hard," Crosby says. "And I would say it’s actually different, they may not sit in an office at a desk from nine to five, but they’re probably 24/7 answering an email or responding to a text. They’re sort of always on, so it’s different. It’s hard to quantify how many hours a week somebody is working if their office is virtual or if they’re an entrepreneur … I’m sure Kelly English works more than 40 hours a week."

It’s not just how they look when they do what they do that sets these professionals apart from previous generations, or where they do what they do, but who they do it for and why. Take 25-year-old Bruce, he works now for The New Memphis Institute, an organization that seeks to better the community by recruiting, retaining and developing new talent in the city through internships, initiatives and strategic programs.

"All of those attributes about flexibility and working for an organization, that really makes an impact, those are the things that I value the most."

He came to Memphis from Greenville, S.C., to attend Rhodes College. He graduated in 2011 with an English degree and has stayed here, committed to his adopted home. It was while at Rhodes that he was set on his course. "I interned at Shelby Farms Park Conservancy and it was a turning point for me, working at a place that is a nonprofit environment and you can see the fruits of your labor first hand with how the park has grown. It’s the same thing working here at New Memphis, I get to see all the leaders and future leaders that we train and we come in contact with, it’s just a very rewarding thing to see every day."

Petschonek points out that this über-happiness with work may be a backlash against a society that has, for the most part, taught us to dread getting up every morning and punching that time clock. "Oh, so-and-so’s got a case of the Mondays, thank God it’s Friday, it’s hump day, we’re halfway there, working for the man – all of that sort of stuff, nothing about the way we’ve presented a traditional work culture is enticing, you can’t really blame the new generation for saying, 'Yeah, I don’t want that, I want something better than that.'"

What is it that the young professional of Memphis finds so rewarding? Stay tuned and find out.

Read more articles by Richard J. Alley.

A freelance writer since 2008, Richard’s work has appeared in The Memphis Daily News, Memphis Magazine, Oxford American, The Memphis Flyer, River Times Magazine, Rhodes Magazine, The Commercial Appeal, and MBQ magazine among others, and in syndication through the Associated Press and Scripps Howard News Service. He is the editor of Development News for High Ground. Contact Richard.
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