Brain Drain

How can Sacramento keep its millennials in the mix?

Back Article Mar 1, 2014 By Jeff Wilser

About a decade ago, as a financial analyst for Intel, I lived in the suburbs of Santa Clara and frequently traveled to Folsom. It was a good job, especially for a kid straight out of college — decent pay, strong company and the lure of glittering stock options.

So I left.

I knew Intel was the logical choice, but the 23-year-old in me found the Santa Clara suburbs boring. I craved the city. I wanted to swap my car for public transportation, walk to coffee shops, explore new restaurants and, I’ll admit, maybe stumble home from a bar at 2 a.m. So I flouted common sense and took a not-quite-as-good job in San Francisco.

This is millennial logic, and it has big implications for Sacramento. “Sixty-four percent of young professionals choose the city they want to live in before they choose the job,” says Sandra Kirschenmann, associate vice provost of Drexel University in Sacramento. She’s part of a growing coalition cut from the cloth of government, education and private companies focused on cracking one of the city’s sneakiest economic problems: poor talent retention. Sacramento has top schools that produce top talent, but too often that talent abandons the capital.

“If you’re not retaining quality folks in Sacramento, your future’s going to be grim,” says Michael Marion Jr., dean of student services at Cosumnes River College and this year’s Metro EDGE vice chair. “Sacramento is the capital of California, but it still has a glass ceiling. Young professionals can get frustrated. They might say, ‘I’ve given Sacramento what I can, but if there’s not an opportunity, I’m going to go somewhere else.’”

If unchecked, the problem will only deepen. It’s a vicious cycle: Weak talent retention hurts the economy, a shaky economy means a thin job market and a thin job market, in turn, leads to even lower retention.

So what’s the plan?

Sacramento’s Next Economy Initiative, a strategy to breathe 35,000 jobs and $5.3 billion in revenue into the region by 2017, sees talent retention as a key piece of the puzzle. The goals include growing and maintaining a world-class talent base, and the inspiration behind much of the game plan came from, of all places, downtown Philadelphia.

Every year the Metro Chamber takes a platoon of business leaders on a study mission to observe best practices in cities across the nation. Last September, they went to Philly, and this year they’re going to Nashville.

“Like Sacramento, Philadelphia sits in the shadow of these other larger metropolitan areas, and they’re constantly trying to compete for talent,” says Christine Ault, the day-to-day project manager for the Next Economy Initiative. “But Philadelphia took these perceived liabilities and framed them as assets.”

Philadelphia highlighted its affordability, plum location, thriving culture, an emerging food and nightlife scene, and overall quality of life. (This should sound awfully familiar to anyone privy to this region’s farm-to-fork initiative…) Its universities worked with employers to spark connections with students.

Between 2006 and 2012, the population got a boost of nearly 60,000. In that time, the number of people between ages 20 and 34 grew from 20 percent to 26 percent, according to Census estimates. These days, 48 percent of nonnative college students reported staying in Philadelphia after graduation, up from 29 percent in 2004, according to the nonprofit Campus Philly. Urban analysts cite Philadelphia as a model for a new theory on how cities might thrive in the 21st century.

Where does Sacramento start? The first step is a cold, sober look at both the city’s merits and its challenges. “In 2008, at the onset of the great recession, Sacramento was hit harder than any other metropolitan region in the U.S.,” says Ault, citing heavy reliance on both government and construction.

Those two stalwarts are no longer reliable job producers, so the Next Economy working group invested a year of research to identify six core business clusters with the most growth potential.

They found information and communications technology ($9.6 billion in annual revenue), life sciences and health services ($8.6B), agriculture and food production ($3.4B), advanced manufacturing ($1.7B), education and knowledge creation ($1.1B) and clean energy technology ($846M),

Since the universities are part of this process, they can now tweak their curriculums to align interested students down these paths.

UC Davis now offers a program called Central Valley Scholars, a scholarship and mentorship program that, according to alumni (and donor) Chuck Nichols, “offers agribusinesses an opportunity to attract educated and highly skilled workers. Bringing students here is a pivotal requirement to the marketplace competitiveness of the Central Valley and the region’s future.”

But it’s not just as simple as coaxing that fresh-faced, 22-year-old college grad to accept a job here. They need to stay here. They need to be groomed, mentored, valued.

Specifically, Metro EDGE wants to see more young professionals seated on boards. More board seats, more leadership councils, more young voices at the table. Marion cites Nehemiah’s Emerging Leaders Program as a model. At an awards dinner, “Nehemiah will buy a table for ten — and 9 of those seats will be given to young professionals.” It’s an investment in young blood.

Kirschenmann echoes the importance of board seats. When asked what talent retention success would look like in five years, she says, “I would like us to succeed in a board challenge that would result in the creation of board seats for young professionals on over 100 organizational boards in the region. The repeated exposure that a year-long board membership could provide to a young professional, and the ability of that young professional to be the voice of their generation — to help shape and modernize the ideas of the existing board members — would be tangible and effective.” 

The Next Economy’s action plan for talent growth and retention — created with stakeholders from the Metro Chamber, NextEd, UC Davis, Sacramento State and Sacramento Area Commerce & Trade Organization — includes about 30 specific items like, “Educate students on career opportunities in core business clusters,” and “Research feasibility of an online job posting service to develop a comprehensive listing of available jobs and internships and work-based learning opportunities in the region.” It’s a 5-year roadmap that has been officially endorsed by 19 of the region’s 23 cities.

More important than all of these action items, though, might be what young-professional ringleader Erika Bjork sums up in one word: Swagger.

She recognizes that millennials want to live somewhere hip, saying, “There are different ways you can define the word ‘cool.’ It’s an attitude and swagger. A sense of risk-taking. They want to live in a world-class city.”

Swagger? It might not be a plan, but it’s the end goal. The city needs to be seen in this new light. Bjork, of course, is the poster child for Sacramento’s young professionals. She was named the 2013 Young Professional of the Year by the Sacramento Metro Chamber and she’s been tapped as a “40 Under 40” twice.

Several years ago, for some extra cash, Bjork rented out a room to a med student who was on a 30-day rotation. After the month was up, she did it again. Then again. She began taking her housemates on tours of Sacramento, and “They were surprised to find out what Sacramento has to offer.” She took them to coffee shops, parks and pub crawls. She literally sold them on the city. Many decided to stay full-time.

As these med students learned, Sacramento clearly is a prime destination for millennials. Now the challenge is to make sure they see it. 

“It’s a huge missed opportunity if we don’t capitalize on our young talent here,” Marion says. “We’ll be truly missing out.”         

Russell Nichols contributed to this report.

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