Back in 2006, one fear plagued the city’s government and business leaders: brain drain. The phenomenon found college graduates and young professionals age 21-45 flocking to more vibrant metropolitan areas for career and social opportunities they found lacking in Central Ohio. If this young, highly skilled workforce left town, many worried Columbus’s economic future would follow.
“That’s a critical working age, an age when also a lot of determining factors of ‘how much do I like this area, how long am I going to stay in this area, is this where I’m going to make my home?’ happens,” says Michael Dalby, president and CEO of the Columbus Chamber.
In order to turn the tide, the chamber and the city of Columbus developed the Young Professionals Initiative in 2006. The initiative combined public funding with aggressive outreach to the coveted demographic in an effort to build a more YP-friendly Columbus.
Fast forward seven years. Today, many of the young professionals courted in the early days of that initiative say the program’s success is evident in the city’s healthy economy, vibrant culture and modernized landscape.
“The great, solid job opportunities that are desired, that people want, have definitely improved,” says Robbie Banks, who helped lead the initiative as the chamber’s young professionals manager from 2007 to 2012. Now, Banks leverages those improvements as senior visitor experience and tourism ambassador program manager for Experience Columbus.
After five years working as a liaison between city leaders and Columbus’ s 60-plus YP organizations, Banks says the city grew more “open and accessible” as a direct result of YP engagement. “They are the next crop of leaders in our community, so it’s important to develop them and have them be part of the process in every single way,” she says.
Forming a Plan
The first step to engaging YPs was to find out what it would take to keep them from relocating as they graduated and entered the workforce. In April 2007, the city hired Next Generation Consulting for $85,000 to develop a strategic plan aimed at “building a city that’s a talent magnet for young professionals.” Chief among Next Generation’s recommendations was the appointment of a commission of artists, entrepreneurs and professionals age 40 and under that could act as an advisor for the demographic’s needs.
The initial recommendations of that YP Commission, now called the Create Columbus Commission, are visible in the bike paths, rehabilitated entertainment districts, green spaces and upscale housing developments that define downtown Columbus today.
“They are very in tune and involved young folks. This is not their first rodeo when it comes to programming and creating initiatives,” says Shannon Hardin, 26, external affairs manager for the city of Columbus. Hardin represented the mayor’s office on the Create Columbus executive committee from 2010 to 2012.
Hardin says the city has overhauled its YP initiative, and the commission has grown from an advisory board to a grant-making organization. “The mayor wanted to help the commission, to give them some independence and the ability to take stances, to really affect the community.”
Since 2007, Columbus City Council has allocated $70,000 annually from the city’s general fund to support YP initiatives. Up until this year, that funding went toward the chamber’s YP manager position and the administrative costs of running Create Columbus. Earlier this year, however, Dalby says city leaders decided to stop funding such programs through the chamber.
Instead, $50,000 will be allocated in 2013 to Create Columbus, which will work with United Way of Central Ohio to make grants directly to the YP initiatives it finds deserving. City council declined to comment on the new strategy. The remaining $20,000 of city funding will pay for commission overhead.
Under the new funding powers granted by the mayor and city council, Create Columbus will award grants of up to $10,000 each. The application process will begin in late summer, according to commission members.
“This commission is the foremost thought leader on young professionals in terms of what our community needs to do to ensure that [we’re] the best place in the country for young professionals to live, work and play,” says Jordan Davis, 24, a commission member and manager of events and development for the Columbus Partnership. “It puts the power into the young professionals’ [hands] to direct resources to really move the needle.”
Little concrete data exists to measure the city’s progress in attracting and retaining young professional residents. The closest metric is the chamber’s 2011 State of the Young Professional report, which utilized an online survey taken by 1,124 respondents age 22-40. The survey questions mirrored the original survey of 4,155 young professionals published in 2007 by Next Generation Consulting.
The results showed an overall increase in YPs’ perception of Columbus as a vibrant and diverse community. Despite little increase in income and rising unemployment rates due to the recession, more respondents singled out the city for offering solid earning potential—69 percent in 2007 compared with 81 percent in 2011. Affordable cost of living remained the city’s most selected characteristic, chosen by 88 percent of respondents in 2007 and 92 percent in 2011.
Since 2007, respondents had a stronger perception of the quality of Columbus’s nightlife, vitality (a healthy community with recreational options) and social capital (a community of diverse and engaged residents). Vitality showed the largest increase, moving from 58 percent to 79 percent.
Of the respondents identified as transplants, the most commonly cited reason for relocating to Columbus was the “plentiful” and competitive job opportunities with growth potential.
“Our economy is very diverse in Central Ohio, with a strong mix of established companies and those that are growing in their markets,” says Kenny McDonald, chief economic officer of Columbus 2020, via email. Job potential draws YPs, which in turn attracts employers, he says. “One constant is the need for enthusiastic, creative workers with core skills that can help those companies compete globally.”
Columbus 2020, the Partnership and the chamber all are working to entice more businesses and young professionals to the region. One example: Last fall, Ohio State University incorporated the city into its Welcome Week events for the first time. OSU and the Partnership bused 7,000 freshmen to Nationwide Arena for a program introducing them to local businesses, events and amenities such as COTA and the Metro Parks system. Davis says the Partnership will do the same for fall 2013.
Tim Maly, outgoing president of Young Professionals of Columbus, says such outreach would have helped bond him to Columbus as a new OSU student in 2005. “I don’t remember there being any outreach from the city or the chamber or any other … YP groups,” says Maly, 26, a retail broker with Colliers International. He credits connections made as a YPC member for helping him land his job.
YPC was one of the first young professionals organizations to emerge when the city launched its YP campaign, Maly says. With 100 members, the group hosts regular networking events in cooperation with local organizations including the Columbus Crew, Columbus Blue Jackets and OSU’s Fisher College of Business.
Bridging the Gap
Derek Grosso, founder and president/CEO of the Columbus Young Professionals Club, moved to Columbus in 2005. The Long Island native, 33, says the CYP Club has grown into the largest YP organization in the country with 18,000 members who work at more than 1,000 different employers.
The group hosts regular networking events, conducts surveys among young professionals and works with government leaders, civic organizations and other YP organizations.
Grosso also works with local companies to help bond their YP workforce members to the region. He has talked with new hires at Honda of America Manufacturing Inc., Cardinal Health, OSU and Capital University “who are looking to make their way in the business world but also want to get involved with the community.”
Many companies have in-house YP groups. Such organizations create networking pipelines for young employees and provide them with a sense of investment in the company and the community. Chanda Frenton, 34, a learning and development analyst with State Farm, chairs the Young Business Professionals group in the company’s Newark office. She encouraged State Farm to sponsor the chamber’s State of the Young Professional event in 2011.
State Farm utilizes the 439 members of its Young Business Professionals group in New Albany and Newark to roll out new initiatives. The YBP group, in conjunction with the company’s 151 other employee groups, helps to reduce turnover. “When we see our young employees unengaged, they typically leave,” says Greg Garrett, enterprise diversity and inclusion manager for State Farm. Industry standards show that hiring and training new employees costs companies five times more than retaining and developing existing staff, Garrett says.
The young professional group at Battelle has led an initiative to implement internal social media networks and helped engage senior directors in blogging. The group hosts Tuesday lunch sessions, connects employees with the community and also has hosted Columbus Chamber YP events.
Laura Hartnett co-chairs the New Lawyers Committee of the Columbus Bar Association. New attorneys are turning to the organization to compete in the tough job market.
“Our firm has offices around the world, and a lot of times we have young attorneys who are trying to decide between Chicago and Columbus, or Columbus and D.C.,” says Hartnett, 30, an associate with the Columbus office of Jones Day. Those who stay in Central Ohio, she says, often cite the lower cost of living and lower traffic volume combined with the vibrant restaurant, arts and cultural scenes. “They see this being a long-term place where they can stay, put down roots,” Hartnett says.
In a nutshell, they—and many other YPs—benefit from the same professional opportunities without the drawbacks of larger metro areas. That’s the return on investment the city is looking for from its YP initiatives, says Hardin. “Knowing that Columbus has continued to be ranked as a vibrant city, as a young city, a city that is welcoming to young professionals and college graduates—those are the metrics that we look to.”
Kitty McConnell is a reporter for Columbus CEO.