Next generation professionals: These workers want more than just craft beer

By: Michael Phillips | Richmond Times Dispatch
Published: May 19, 2013

The Richmond region needs to start patting itself on the back, instead of waiting for external validation.

That’s one of the findings from a comprehensive survey that was conducted recently by the Southeastern Institute of Research on behalf of Richmond’s Future, a think tank founded by Dr. Eugene Trani to address issues vital to RVA’s future.

Our group of 30 young professionals helped craft the survey and analyze the results, and we will present those findings at Tuesday’s Public Square.

Our group started with personal stories, many illustrating the gap between perception and reality in the region.

We heard stories of VCU and UR graduates who left because they assumed there were no good jobs in RVA, but we also found near-unanimous approval for the region as a place to live.

Attracting young professionals has become a competitive sport among cities in recent years, as the number of Americans age 55 and up is ballooning, while the traditional workforce, age 18-54, remains the same size — placing younger workers in higher demand.

The survey, part of the YRVA Study, was taken by more than 3,500 people. Among those who self identified as young professionals, the median age was 31.

Our committee split into three groups, each of which presented action items to the business leaders on Richmond’s Future board. Here’s a quick overview:

College: The area’s colleges and employers are doing a poor job of bridging the gap between graduation and entrance intothe workforce.

Of the respondents currently attending school here, 78 percent say they love living in RVA.

So why did only 43 percent say they’re “likely” to remain in RVA after graduating?

Job opportunities.

College students aren’t aware that jobs are waiting for them in Richmond, and most never make a contact at an area business while they’re in school.

When it comes time to enter the real world, they assume the place to do that is in Northern Virginia, Charlotte or another bigger city.

With two-thirds of our respondents having moved from elsewhere to attend college in Richmond, this demographic represents an opportunity to grow the city with the qualified, educated workers that employers demand. Those employers will have to reach out and meet students halfway, though.

Peer cities: As part of the survey, we asked young professionals in six cities — Raleigh, Washington, D.C., Charlotte, Austin, Atlanta and Denver — to rate their city for a baseline comparison.

We also asked those groups to tell us what they knew about Richmond. The answer was a resounding “nothing.”

Even in D.C. and Raleigh, more than three-fourths of young professionals have no impressions of Richmond and have never considered it as a potential landing spot.

On the positive side, Richmond no longer has to fight its reputation as an unsafe city — because young professionals in other cities aren’t aware of it.

But with employers soon to be in desperate need of qualified workers, Richmond can’t wait for the world to find out what we’ve got.

We studied ways to market the city to young professionals elsewhere, and found that touting Richmond’s history isn’t getting the job done — to young people, that’s old news.

Instead, the RVA food scene deserves to be front and center. Respondents told us a food scene is one of the most important factors when they are looking at a potential city, and our town scored highly in virtually every important category.

That’s not to say that a few good meals can make other problems go away, but a vibrant food scene is the canary in the coal mine for millennials — it indicates the kind of thriving culture they want to be a part of.

Young professionals: Finally, we distributed a survey to young professionals in the Richmond area.

Among the cities we surveyed, only RVA and Denver had more respondents say they moved to the region for the people, as opposed to moving there for a job.

Our vibrant community is one of our best assets when it comes to creating a desirable place to live.

Employers should seize on that dynamic, offering opportunities that let workers create and construct, instead of the desk-bound jobs that were pushed on other generations.

And while regional cooperation remains a constant cry, it’s time to realize the next generation won’t put up with governmental faults — they’ll simply take their business elsewhere.

Of the young professionals who live in RVA, 80 percent believe they can make a difference here. That passion needs to be harnessed. Groups that are innovating need to make a point of working together.

Because at the end of the day, it’s not about our history, our culture or even our craft beer — it’s about community.

Demographic trends point to a labor shortage within the next two decades, as boomers retire and there are fewer millennials to fill those roles.

That age group told us they love Richmond, filling out survey after survey touting our culture and community.

That won’t be enough to ensure a vibrant future, though. The region, and its employers, must do better at promoting RVA as a destination — following the examples of Austin and Denver.

Richmond is poised to become a landing spot for young professionals, but not before clearing some serious hurdles first.

Michael Phillips covers U.Va. athletics for the Times-Dispatch. He wrote the article in collaboration with the other presenting members of the YRVA study: Lauren Sharp, Heather Harsh, Coldon Martin, Laura Coutts, Patrick Devlin, Andrew Ryan, Patrice Lewis, John O’Dea, Corey Lane, Jill Kubichan, Cheryl Jones and Rachel Burgess. Contact Phillips at (804) 649-6546 or mphillips@timesdispatch.com.