From IEDC: Why Smaller Communities Are Great for Young Economic Developers (and Vice Versa)

By Kyle Wagner, Director of Business Development, Coachella Valley Economic Partnership

Millennials are flocking to large cities. For the majority of communities that aren’t New York City, Chicago, Los Angeles (and down the list), this is an area of concern both for the local workforce and for talent within your organization.

As a millennial who grew up in a rural Midwest town and attended university in a southern college town, the call of the big city was all too alluring. I moved to Denver after graduating to establish my career and eventually earned an MBA there. After a few years of restlessness, I moved to California with hopes of landing a position in Los Angeles or the San Francisco Bay area. Instead, I’ve spent the past four years living and working in a fantastic community two hours outside of L.A., and it was the best career decision I’ve ever made. Here’s why.

Big fish, small pond

Malcolm Gladwell’s book “David and Goliath” presents some interesting notions on how individuals can have the most impact on an organization or community. Gladwell argues that it’s ultimately a numbers game. Talented individuals compete for room in big ponds (think NYC or Houston), whereas they have more freedom to grow in small ponds (e.g., Boise, Idaho, or Joplin, Mo.).

This isn’t to say there aren’t great opportunities in our nation’s largest cities; the point is that communities of all sizes have the chance to attract and retain great talent with the right pitch. Millennials want to see that their work benefits society. For me, working at a regional economic development organization (EDO) in a mid-size market has allowed me to have a hugely beneficial impact on my community.

Planting roots

One of the central economic development concepts I’ve learned is that business retention involves helping businesses plant deep roots in the community. Many businesses choose to stay in a given area because they have access to elected officials, the community has invested in infrastructure improvements, and their employees’ children go to school within the local school district. These factors will keep a successful business in a community even when courted with incentives from other regions.

The YPs in your organization today will be the leaders of tomorrow’s economy. We’ll be in positions of authority, making decisions to guide the growth of our communities.

It’s important for EDOs to have the same mentality with their millennial employees. Having your young professionals (YPs) attend events like chamber mixers, “state of the city” updates, and local leadership programs exposes them to community needs and aspirations, helping them form a deep connection. I’ve had the privilege of representing my EDO as a guest speaker at civic organizations and city council meetings. These experiences have given me more confidence in my abilities and helped build my personal network with movers and shakers in the community.

By 2030, all baby boomers will be over the age of 65. Smart, forward-thinking communities are planning ahead, making efforts to accommodate the changing demographics of both citizens and the workforce. The YPs in your organization today will be the leaders of tomorrow’s economy. We’ll be in positions of authority, making decisions to guide the growth of our communities.

Collaboration and partnerships

I’ve had the opportunity to work with nine different city councils and staffs, the county, and the state of California. It’s a unique opportunity for a YP to be exposed to various levels of government, to see what common threads unite them and what makes each unique. From these experiences, I’ve seen firsthand the benefits of partnership and collaboration.

YPs are well positioned to forge partnerships. We are hungry to build on the accomplishments of previous generations, and we recognize the value of collaboration. In my work, I see how each municipality has its own agenda and economic goals. Our EDO has become a platform for these individual cities to come together and tackle economic issues that have broad, regional impact. Our leaders recognize that a win for one city is really a win for the region.

I’ve been a part of (often difficult) conversations about how we position our region in the global economy. As the next driver of that economy, your YPs have great insight and skills to work across borders and produce results with impact on more than just one city, county, or EDO. Young professionals are motivated by seeing the fruit of their labor, and we recognize that often entails leveraging the strengths of multiple entities and organizations.

From a positioning standpoint, it makes sense for communities to highlight their young, up-and-coming leaders. Your YPs reflect the hunger and aspirations of your community and economy. We may not have the years of experience that our colleagues and mentors do, but that can also be one of our greatest assets: We are unafraid of presenting new ideas, and are ready to try to make them work.

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