Winning young professionals

By: John W. Martin and Jack Berry | Richmond Times Dispatch
Published: May 19, 2013

Everyone knows the tremendous economic development advantage that comes with being a recognized national hub in a networked world. Silicon Valley, Research Triangle and Route 128 as high-tech hubs are great examples. Richmond’s emerging status as a logistic hub is another. Once a region becomes a recognized hub, whether by accident or design, success begets success.

Given the certainty of demographics, the next economic development battle over “hub status” will be fought over people — attracting and retaining the best and brightest young professionals. Due to the dramatic increase in life expectancy and decline of birth rates, America’s population is shifting. For the first time in history, there will be more people over the age of 65 than under the age of 15 (JSM, 2013). Looking out to 2030, demographers see a dramatic change as the 55-plus age segment will increase significantly while the 18-to-54 segment, America’s traditional work-force, remains relatively the same size. One major consequence is that baby boomers are expected to remain in the workforce longer. Another expected consequence is the coming battle among cities for young professionals.

Even with the recovering job market today, cities across America are starting to see the long-term value of becoming a hub for talented young professionals. Stories in USA Today and on NPR point to cities like Austin and Boston as emerging hubs for young professionals. As the demographic age shift plays out over the next 20 years, overt economic development campaigns will likely ramp up to lure these highly educated and desirable younger workers.

Based on lessons learned from “urban hub dynamics,” the long-term economic prosperity of metropolitan areas will be based, in part, on how quickly a region can become recognized as one of these preferred places for young professionals to live and work today. Why so fast? Because there will be just a few spots on the final list. After all, how many national airports hubs are there? How many high-tech centers?

Thanks to Richmond’s Future, the independent, nonprofit think tank that explores issues vital to the future of our region, RVA is now focused on what it will take to make the list as one of the most desirable places for young professionals to live, work and play. Almost a year ago, Richmond’s Future launched the YRVA Study, a comprehensive marketing research study named after the its primary target audience and topic: generation Y, a.k.a. the millennials. It focused on why they are attracted to and remain in some cities and not others, including RVA. This study was designed and orchestrated by the Southeastern Institute of Research, Inc. (SIR), but with a unique creative twist. At the heart of this research effort was the perspective, drive and dedication of a special group of newly minted research associates — 30 of RVA’s best and brightest young professionals.

The study team’s fresh and authentic perspective informed the entire research process, from shaping interview guides and survey instruments to reviewing the results and formulating recommendations. Five key audiences were studied: students attending colleges and universities in the RVA region and across Virginia; young professionals who currently live and work across the RVA region, young professionals living and working in six peer cities, as well as RVA’s business leaders and human resource executives. More than 3,500 people participated in the YRVA Study, which included a mix of qualitative focus groups and quantitative surveys.

Based on findings to date, the biggest insights from the study can be summed up in three words – jobs, culture and community.

  • Jobs, properly packaged and marketed to millennials’ sensibilities, will retain more of RVA’s college students in and attract a greater number of college graduates from colleges and universities across Virginia. We must do a much better job packaging and promoting the fact that we have jobs right here in RVA and that many of our region’s traditional jobs include creative endeavors, work that Millennials find more appealing in today’s “maker economy.”
  • Advancing and supporting RVA’s culture, especially our authentic and eclectic food scene, will help attract and retain young professionals. But it’s not just about food. The hip food scene is more about the millennial-minded drive to be socially hyper-connected to a cool, authentic, locally sustainable culture. Good news, our food scene is starting to receive national media attention. As the YRVA study team says “In RVA, every week is restaurant week.”
  • Building RVA’s sense of community is the third big take-away from the study. Richmond’s young professionals want to make a difference and they believe that RVA is a place where that is possible.

The immediate next step for the YRVA Study project team is to further mine the enormous data set and explore, in greater detail, important segments of young professionals, such as African-Americans. Another important step is to begin sharing the YRVA Study’s initial insights and recommendations with all interested organizations that have a stake in RVA’s future. This starts with extending an open invitation to download the YRVA Study’s executive summary from Richmond Future’s website (

Once the study is widely circulated, however, the ultimate responsibility and future action steps will fall upon our region’s local governments, companies and nongovernmental organizations. Through their extensive reach, existing infrastructure and resources, organizations that make up our community must bring the YRVA Study’s recommendations to life. Working on this cause today will ensure that RVA will become and remain one of the hottest hubs for young professionals tomorrow. And the best part of this goal is that if we make this place more attractive to young people, it will always be a great community for the rest of us.

John W. Martin, CEO of the Southeastern Institute of Research, and Jack Berry, executive director of Venture Richmond, are the co-chairs of the YRVA Study, an initiative of Richmond’s Future. Visit for the executive summary of YRVA Study.