Richmond needs to market itself to millennials

By: Jacob Geiger | Richmond Times Dispatch
Published: May 19, 2013

In the fall of 2011, Virginia Commonwealth University graduate Hanna Teshome was ready to head home to Alexandria.

While working in clinical labs at Bon Secours and LabCorp in Richmond, she had applied to several lab jobs in Washington and Baltimore because she wanted to be closer to family and didn’t see a long-term fit in Richmond. Then a call came from Richmond’s Health Diagnostic Laboratory Inc., a company she’d applied to several times.

“The only reason I’m still in Richmond is HDL,” she said. “Now, I don’t look for another job.”

As cities around the country strive to attract and keep young, college-educated workers who will drive the economy in coming decades, it’s little surprise that good jobs with the opportunity for professional and personal development are critical.

But an extensive survey commissioned by Richmond’s Future, a think tank run by former VCU President Eugene Trani, found there’s a perception that the Richmond region lacks the types of jobs that are attractive to students finishing college.

According to the survey, nearly 80 percent of the Richmond area’s college students love living here. But 40 percent say they’ll leave within a year or two of graduation, largely because they don’t think there are good job prospects here for new grads.

Teshome said she’s glad the job at HDL has allowed her to stay in Richmond. She lives in Shockoe Bottom and likes the city’s size and atmosphere, as well as events like the Monument Avenue 10K, Broad Appétit and the Richmond Folk Festival.

“I’ve spent a lot of time in D.C., of course, growing up in Alexandria,” she said. “Richmond has everything a big city would have, but with less commotion.”

Karen Brown came home to Henrico County to work. The Mills Godwin High School graduate took an information technology job with Alstom Power after graduating from Norfolk State University in 2011 and joined HDL in January 2012 after a former colleague at Alstom recruited her to the fast-growing disease diagnosis and management company.

One thing she likes about HDL is the young workforce — 41 percent of the company’s 673 employees are younger than 30.

“Everyone is youthful and trying to grow together; it’s fun and fast-paced,” she said. “There’s a big focus on innovation here.”

Brown and Tesome both said they were one of the youngest employees at their former jobs. Now they’re surrounded by peers, something both said they value in a work environment. Jeff Kelley, a 31-year-old marketing program manager at HDL, said he sometimes feels like an old hand at the company.

“At lunch, it looks like I’m in a high school cafeteria,” he said.

Lucy Moore also boomeranged back to Richmond after school, with a three-year detour to Washington. She’s an associate consultant at The Frontier Project, a Shockoe Bottom business that does consulting, training and organizational development for larger companies.

“D.C. is big, too political and super expensive,” said Moore, a 2005 University of Virginia grad. “I got tired of going out and paying $8 for a beer.”

And after growing up in the city’s West End and attending Collegiate School, she’s enjoyed exploring neighborhoods like Shockoe and Church Hill that she rarely, if ever, visited as a child.

“It’s great to see the city grow and evolve,” she said.

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The survey, commissioned by Richmond’s Future and completed by the Southeastern Institute of Research, took a three-pronged approach as it sought to understand why people come to Richmond, as well as why they stay or leave.

The study started by surveying nearly 1,300 young professionals who described themselves as living in the Richmond region. They took a 15-minute online survey that was built and conducted by a team of 30 local young professionals who helped identify potential issues to study, reviewed the results and helped set recommendations.

Similar surveys were also conducted with 200 young professionals in six peer cities — Washington; Denver; Atlanta; Austin, Texas; Charlotte, N.C.; and Raleigh, N.C.

Nearly 600 college and university students were surveyed — 245 from local colleges and 344 from other Virginia colleges outside the region.

The group learned that jobs matter, but so do things like outdoor activities, an interesting food scene and being surrounded by peers who share your interests and aspirations.

People matter a lot to young workers, with 46 percent saying they choose to live here mostly because of the people in town.

Among the key suggestions from the group:

• draw more college students to Richmond by better marketing the area’s available jobs and repackaging current jobs to show applicants they’ll have the opportunity to use their creative talents;

• use the food scene — something local young professionals praised and that young workers in other cities also want — to draw people to Richmond; and

• keep the young professionals who are already here by embracing and showcasing innovation and focusing jobs around the strengths of the current workforce.

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Joseph Testani, director of VCU’s University Career Center, helps graduates land jobs. Though he said the center is in the early stages of tracking exactly how many graduates stay in the area each year, he believes more than half stick around.

Helping students land jobs varies widely based on their majors. At the professional schools like nursing, education and engineering, he noted, there are often well-defined career tracks and possibilities and a number of large employers that hire new graduates each year.

Testani said the department is also expanding its internship programs. He said about 50 percent to 60 percent of internships convert into permanent jobs.

“So we know that internships will be an entry point for students to get full-time offers, and we are pushing this institutionally and bringing on staffers who are focused specifically on cultivating that and coordinating that in Richmond,” he said.

University of Richmond Career Services Director Leslie Stevenson said about one-fifth of the school’s students stay in the region after graduation. She said the school has ramped up its partnerships with alumni who are in positions to hire young graduates.

Lane Hopkins, managing vice president of recruitment and talent development at Capital One, has spent most of her 16 years at the company involved in recruiting college students. She said the banking and credit card company’s core goal hasn’t changed in that time: recruit great people and develop an environment where they can thrive. What has changed, she said, are the channels used to reach and recruit students.

“Much like the rest of the world we take a more digital approach,” she said. “We have a fairly significant social media presence, and the way we source students off college campuses today is more digital and virtual.”

The company’s extensive internship program provides lots of future employees. Hopkins said more than 80 percent of summer interns wind up working at Capital One after graduation.

She said young workers may have different work styles, than other generations, but similar work goals.

“They all want challenging work they can learn from,” she said “They want to innovate and make a contribution that matters. And they want a collaborative environment.”

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Ramzy Ismail and Ali Croft offer two different looks at how Richmond can draw young professionals and keep them here.

Ismail, a native of Los Angeles who went to high school in Northern Virginia, graduated from VCU in May 2012 with a degree in finance and entrepreneurship. He spent three weeks last summer at Yale University’s program for students considering a master’s in business administration, meeting recent graduates from Yale, Stanford University and Harvard University.

“I was interviewing for a nonprofit job in Boston and looking at an opportunity in San Francisco,” he said. “But I found the best balance of family life, city resources and cost of living was in Richmond.”

Ismail said he also wanted to stay in town to see the continued growth of VCU’s da Vinci Center for Innovation and the development of a more vibrant startup and entrepreneurship culture in the area.

He joined Genworth Financial’s leadership development program before leaving in March to focus on a company he started during Richmond’s inaugural Startup Weekend, held in September 2012. The company, Venuable, helps make unique and unusual spaces available to event planners.

“Richmond is incredibly supportive of local go-getters,” he said. “I’ve gotten so much support from this city and my mentors that it would be difficult to give that up.”

Venuable recently joined the inaugural class of Lighthouse Labs, a startup accelerator launched by local entrepreneur Todd Nuckols. And Ismail has been getting advice and mentorship from Matt Rho, the managing director at New Richmond Ventures, a high-powered group of local businessmen who invest in and mentor local startups.

“It’s hard to forego the opportunity to interact with so many dynamic people,” Ismail said.

Croft came to town in 2009, taking part-time jobs to make ends meet. Her relationship with the city has deepened each year.

She joined The Frontier Project more than three years ago as its first graphic designer and today serves as the company’s creative director.

“What kept me here was the Frontier job opportunity, which has evolved over time,” she said. The majority of us are under 35 … I like working with a bunch of friends that have shared personal and professional values.”

Croft said she used to talk about moving to New York City but has decided she likes living here.

“In Richmond if you are great at what you do, you can effect change and really make a difference and not be drowned out by all the noise and competition,” she said. “It feels like I can make an impact here.”

She’s far from alone in that opinion; 80 percent of young professionals surveyed said they feel like they can make a difference in the region.

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The Greater Richmond Chamber runs two programs aimed at attracting and keeping young talent. YRichmond, a program started by local nonprofit C3 and now managed by the Chamber, introduces summer interns to the city’s professional and cultural opportunities, mixing things like Flying Squirrels’ games or river rafting trips with advice on networking and career development. The Chamber’s Helping Young Professionals Engage (HYPE) program connects early career professionals to each other and the region through a variety of networking, community service and professional development events.

Kellen Ball, who will become HYPE’s chairman in July, arrived here five years ago for a job with Capital One. The Penn State graduate knew little about the area.

“I basically knew that Richmond was south of Pennsylvania,” he said. “I did get to come down for two visits prior to starting, but I really didn’t have a good understanding of what Richmond was about.”

What’s kept him here is work he enjoys — he now splits time between operations analysis and campus recruiting — and time spent along the James River, primarily mountain biking and trail running.

“And in general, I like the people here and the attitude,” Ball said. “It’s relaxed and friendly and easy to meet people.”

People like Ball, Croft and Ismail are the folks Richmond is desperate to attract and keep. Ismail said he’s trying to pay forward some of the advice and support he received as a student and young graduate.

“Now I seek out students and want to bring them into the fold of what we are trying to build here. The more people are exposed to what we have to offer the more we can keep talent here,” he said. “I know a few of my friends took opportunities with Deloitte in Boston or investment banks in New York or Charlotte. I understand their opportunities, but I think there is an opportunity here.

“If you invest in Richmond, Richmond will invest in you.”