Opinion: Is Dayton working smartly to attract young talent? These local programs are taking the challenge

As the economy began to recover from the Great Recession and the unemployment rate declined, many business and community leaders in the greater Dayton region began expressing concerns about the local workforce.

They worried about the exodus to larger markets of young adults with undergraduate and graduate degrees. Their concerns were two-fold: first, can the local economy be transformed from the Rust Belt-type economy? And, if so, will there be a skilled and educated workforce to serve new-economy industries?

Several organizations responded with programs to address the loss of talented college graduates. One was the “20 by 20 Challenge” launched in 2013 by the Southwest Ohio Council for Higher Education. According to SOCHE, of the 112,000 students at the more than 20 colleges and universities in our immediate region, there were about 8,000 college interns working for local companies in 2012.

The 20 by 20 Challenge set a goal of growing that number to 20,000 by 2020. The idea was that internships encourage well-educated young people to remain in the region after graduating, and let businesses try out their potential workforce. College internships are a core retention strategy. Today, SOCHE estimates there were 16,187 internships filled in the region by the end of 2017.

Fast forward to 2018, and the region and the nation are approaching historic lows in the unemployment rate. In some industries and job categories, there are more jobs than people to fill them. Yet concerns persist about college-educated graduates leaving the region.

In order to better understand whether our region has the right mechanisms and initiatives in place to retain and attract talent, we interviewed several community leaders to hear their perspectives.

Among all the people and organizations we contacted, UpDayton, a non-profit organization, is probably closest to the issue. UpDayton’s mission is “to spur economic growth in the Dayton region by attracting and retaining young creative talent. UpDayton wants to show young adults that the Gem City is a great place to live, work and play. …”

UpDayton sponsors projects and programs designed to engage talented young adults, including an annual summit which acts as a launch pad for volunteer-powered community projects. Importantly, the organization has finalized three surveys of young professionals where more than 80 percent of respondents were between 25 and 29 years old and the balance where between 18 and 24.

As expected, respondents under 30 gave the region high marks for affordability, short commutes, family-friendliness, and educational opportunities in the organization’s 2008, 2011, and 2018 surveys.

In 2011 and 2018, respondents rated job opportunities as the most important attribute for a region. In the 2008 survey, tellingly, job opportunities rated near the bottom in terms of importance.

AJ Ferguson, economic development project manager at the Downtown Dayton Partnership and UpDayton’s former executive director, curated the UpDayton research. He said that for many young college grads, it’s not just about job opportunities and upward mobility, it’s also about flexibility in those jobs. As a manufacturing-legacy town, “we’re married to the 40-hour work week as opposed to how much a good employee can produce. Younger adults are signing up for a lifestyle, not just a job.”

He added, “I believe we’re falling short on this conversation – we’re not keeping enough of our All-Stars.”

Cassie Barlow, chief operating officer at SOCHE and a 26-year Air Force veteran, works with companies here to help them find and recruit talent. “There are many jobs available,” she said. “With approximately 200,000 students in our primary and secondary school systems and approximately another 200,000 students in regional institutions of higher education, our future workforce is looking strong … there is no reason we should have any unfilled positions.”

There is good workforce planning being done locally, she said, but “if workforce development were to be more systematic, we may be able to retain a larger proportion of college graduates that come here for a good education and then leave for career positions in other markets.

“Also,” she observed, “there is a huge pull for these students to want to live in urban environments. There’s a boom in urban housing, but much of it is not affordable for younger people.”

Like Barlow, Dayton Development Coalition CEO Jeff Hoagland believes community leaders can do more to attract and retain talent. “There are so many businesses that need talent and we have to do something to fill the jobs.” While most of the interviews were conducted prior to Teradata’s announcement that the company would move its Dayton-area offices to San Diego, Teradata would prove Hoagland’s point. “JobsOhio has a part of this, but (the effort) needs to be sector-driven and company-specific.” In other words, it’s up to us.

Barlow suggested the possibility that a regional leader or organization might “own” attraction with specific, strategic intent. “We can easily attract jobseekers, especially for positions with government contractors, because of the need for workers with security clearances,” she said. Many recently retired veterans here already have that security clearance, meaning they can go work right away. That’s a plus.

While an overarching, market-wide workforce development strategy could help the region – particularly on the attraction side by actively and strategically recruiting new talent – several existing and recent initiatives have made an impact, both enlarging and improving the quality of the workforce.

Michael Colbert, currently assistant Montgomery County administrator who will take over as county administrator in August, acknowledges the need for targeted recruitment in key areas such as information technology. Colbert said the county has helped current employers and companies considering locating here. He described Montgomery County as one of the only counties in Ohio to have merged workforce and economic development programs — creating a more seamless and effective process for moving residents from unemployment into career paths.

Sandy Gudorf, president of the Downtown Dayton Partnership, said the region has plenty of features which could be attractive to young talent.

She cites the relatively low cost of living, quality of life, and many opportunities for young people to become engaged and make a difference.

“Consider the … arts and entertainment along with proximity of and access to outdoor amenities,”she said. “Consider, too, the trend towards urban living and the growth in downtown residential choices, restaurants and pubs,” which all contribute to retention.

Gudorf added, however, there is more the community can do: strengthen the region’s economic base, provide more support to entrepreneurs, connect college students to the community, and provide guidance and mentors for young, aspiring executives.

Paul Benson, the University of Dayton’s provost, echoed Gudorf’s comments about quality of life and amenities, but said the region isn’t good at promoting its strengths.

“What matters for students: they’re sensing others’ excitement about what’s happening in this community, (however) we tend to hide our excitement,” he said. Benson also referred to intensive, new talent-retention efforts being launched at UD with this fall’s incoming freshman class. “Dayton is an open, accessible community but students have to experience it. We have to open their eyes to it … make it visible, and not just assume they’ll discover it on their own.”

Marcia Albers, executive director of Technology First, the leading regional information-technology trade association, said there is a meeting on Aug. 9 “that will be the first of what we hope to be semi-annual meetings for industry, academia, and government entities to gather and discuss options to ensure our region can meet IT workforce needs for the future.”

Albers said she thinks her organization would support a community-wide, coordinated effort to recruit and retain IT talent, and said Technology First is about to launch a member survey to better understand its members’ talent and employment needs.

Chris Kershner, executive vice president of the Dayton Area Chamber of Commerce, acknowledged that there is not now a unified strategy for talent attraction. He also recognized that such a strategy would need one organization that is responsible for engaging an attraction strategy and suggested that if its members indicated their support for such an initiative, the Chamber would consider being that organization.

Lucious Plant, director of talent acquisition with the Dayton Development Coalition, said he favors a unified attraction strategy. “When we had several, large publicly held companies,” he said, “they performed their own recruitment of talent both inside and outside Ohio.”

Plant also said there are organizations “doing things for attraction (of talent) right now, but I don’t believe there is a coordinated effort yet.” He cited SOCHE as an entity that has the skill set to identify clusters of highly desirable talent across the United States and suggested one strategy might be to identify and target people outside of the region who grew up here or know something about the area, such as former residents and graduates from local colleges who have moved to other markets.

All respondents agreed on the need for the right level of engagement with those students who have attended local colleges and universities.

The greater Dayton region has important assets that can be leveraged to maintain the economy and protect and retain the great quality of life of which we are so proud. Yet, there remain unanswered questions about how we are thinking about the region’s future.

Perhaps we should be asking of ourselves: Are we working to maintain a workforce, or are we preparing to shape Dayton’s workforce of the future?

And if it’s the latter, which organization or collaborative body wants to own that effort and drive it?

The meeting on Aug. 9 among industry, academic and government leaders mentioned by Technology First’s executive director, Marcia Albers, may well be the start of a critically important community conversation about our collective future.

In support of the expanding regional economy, the Dayton-Montgomery County Port Authority facilitates debt investments into regional businesses and organizations to support their business plans and development projects.

While operating quietly in the background, the Port has been instrumental in many key projects, including downtown Dayton’s Delco Lofts, CareSource’s current expansion, and Spectrum Brands at the airport, to name a few. These Port efforts finance hard assets like real estate, building and related updates, energy optimization investments, and more. The Port has access to capital, key knowledge and structural capabilities to execute these transactions.

Even with that work, it is equally and, perhaps, more important for the region to focus on the people side of the business to grow and attract a skilled, educated workforce. This article shares views from community and educational leaders on how to make that happen.

This was written by Joseph M. Geraghty, senior managing director at Conway MacKenzie, Inc., and chair of the Board of Trustees of the Dayton-Montgomery County Port Authority and Chuck Vella, president of vellaINC, a Dayton public relations and marketing communications firm.

This essay is presented as part of The Path Forward, a new Dayton Daily News project that seeks solutions to some of the biggest challenges facing our community.

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