Roanokers know they have a challenge stemming the drain of educated young people, just like every other small metropolitan area in the United States. At least they’re asking the right questions: What does it take to recruit and retain young professionals? The Roanoke Regional Chamber is hosting an event later this month, Xperience 2015, to communicate to young professionals that the Roanoke and New River valley regions “can be hip and happening places to live, work and find career mentors,” in the words of Duncan Adams writing in the Roanoke Times. Or put another way: “Roanoke doesn’t suck.”
The starting point for any conversation is to recognize that the economic realities of the Knowledge Economy are stacked against smaller metropolitan regions. Big metros offer young professionals two very important things that small metros don’t: larger mating pools and larger job markets. Educated young people who have options of where to live will tend to gravitate to larger metros that provide a wider choice of mates and careers.
But some do choose to live in places in Roanoke. The trick is to figure out what kind of people they are and what made them decide to settle there.
As the urban heart of Southwest Virginia, Roanoke does have some “cool” stuff, Adams observes: craft breweries, downtown lofts, greenways and quick access to outdoor recreational amenities. So, it’s not as if young professionals are moving to a cultural wasteland. I would add, from my own personal experience as a young professional who lived in Roanoke four years during the early 1980s, the city enjoys exceptional natural beauty and has a small but vibrant downtown, not to mention a lower cost of living than larger metros. I loved the city and was sad to leave for better career opportunities elsewhere.
The challenge isn’t reaching the young professionals who live in Roanoke already. They know what the region offers. If they see career opportunities, many if not most will stay. The challenge is persuading young people from outside the region, not drawn by ties of family and friends, to give it a chance.
I’m still waiting for a community like Roanoke to conduct a market segmentation analysis of young college graduates. If I would have to hazard a guess, I would say 90% of college grads would have no interest whatsoever in moving to a place like Roanoke. But maybe 10% would. What characteristics do they have? Do they have a strong preference for outdoor activities like hiking, spelunking and canoeing? Do they hail from smaller towns? Are they more likely to be religious? Do they tend to be more culturally or politically conservative? Identify those characteristics and then devise targeted marketing campaigns to people with those traits. In the age of social media, that may not be so hard to do.
Western Virginia has a remarkable number of colleges and universities, from Virginia Tech and James Madison to Washington & Lee, VMI, Bridgewater, Hollins, Eastern Mennonite, Roanoke College and Mary Baldwin — just to name institutions within a two-hour drive from Roanoke. I would conjecture that students who choose to attend such institutions are more likely to appreciate the assets that Western Virginia has to offer and would be more likely than graduates of other institutions to consider settling down in the region. Perhaps there is some way for Roanoke to tap into the steady stream of college graduates.
Small metros like Roanoke face an uphill climb. The task is not hopeless. But they have to take the next step of identifying the niche market where they can compete in the talent recruitment marketplace. And then they need to organize their communities around creating and supporting the assets those niche college grads are looking for.
(This article first ran in Bacon’s Rebellion on March 12, 2015)