Public Square focuses on attracting millenials

By: John Reid Blackwell | Richmond Times Dispatch
Published: May 22, 2013

The young professionals who are driving the economy of the future are hungry – for jobs and food.

The Richmond area is doing pretty well on one of those fronts, but not the other, according to results of a survey presented during a Public Square at the Richmond Times-Dispatch on Tuesday night.

More than 200 people attended the forum focusing on how the region can attract and keep young professionals. It was the Times-Dispatch’s 47th Public Square, a periodic forum on topics of community interest.

“The thing is – there is a coming war for attracting and retaining young professionals,” said Rachel Burgess, vice president of the Southeastern Institute of Research, which conducted the survey commissioned by Richmond’s Future, a think tank run by former Virginia Commonwealth University President Eugene Trani that studies issues within the Richmond region.

As Baby Boomers age out of the workforce, the Richmond region will need to compete with other cities to attract and retain younger professionals, particularly those in the “millennial” generation born between 1983 and 2001, Burgess said.

The good news from the survey is that Richmond-area college students and young professionals do see the region as a good place to live.

For example, about 79 percent of the nearly 1,300 Richmond-area young professionals who were surveyed said they love living in the Richmond region. About the same percentage of college students had the same feelings about the area.

However, the region seems to have a less stellar reputation when it comes to how young people view the job market. Few of the college students – only 26 percent in the Richmond region and 20 percent attending Virginia schools outside the region – think that the Richmond area is an easier place to find jobs than other cities.

And 41 percent of the college students in the Richmond region said they would leave the region one or two years after graduation, mostly because of a perceived lack of jobs in the area.

“These aren’t exactly bad numbers, but we certainly think there is room for improvement,” said Coldon Martin, one of the local young professionals who presented the survey findings.

The No. 1 thing students are looking for in choosing a place to live is a diverse job market, he said.

“They are hungry for jobs that encourage creating new ideas and new content,” Martin said.

But that doesn’t necessarily mean artistic jobs.

“It actually is more about a certain spirit, a certain sense of innovating new and creative systems that can be applied to things that are not traditionally thought of as creative,” he said.

The “great food scene” was the No. 1 driver of positive feelings about the Richmond region among the young professionals surveyed, and the group presenting the findings suggested that the area can capitalize on that.

“Richmond has a pretty good and growing reputation when it comes to food,” said Andrew Ryan, a local young professional. “The food scene is about more than restaurants. It is about creating shared experiences. Its gathering places – bringing people together.”

John Bolecek, an Oregon Hill resident who works downtown, said it is important to underscore the need for transportation that does not require people to drive. The survey found that young professionals generally don’t view the region as having good alternative transportation.

“I ride my bike to work and I love it, and I would not want to take a job where I have to drive,” he said. “So making Richmond more transit friendly and walk friendly and bike friendly is extremely important.”

Some of those attending the Public Square questioned whether the survey addressed all of the issues important to the entire community.

Duron Chavis, a 33-year-old resident of Woodland Heights, noted that the survey had a small response rate from ethnic minorities.

“There are lot of people in Richmond that are currently unemployed,” he said, adding that many people in the city live within “food deserts.”

“They don’t have access to healthy produce,” he said. “They don’t even have a grocery store within a mile or more of their neighborhoods. This is a really ironic study – that we are talking about Richmond’s food scene when there are people in the city that don’t have a grocery store within a mile and could not afford one.”

Patrice Lewis, a young professional who presented the findings, said the goal of the research was to present information that is different from some of the issues that the region has been tackling for a long time.

“We do have a lot of people that are trying to tackle those issues,” she said. “Transportation has been a big issue for Richmond for a long time, and it always is going to be an issue. Education is going to be an issue. Economic diversity is going to be an issue.

“What makes our survey and our information unique is that we bring something different to the table,” she said.