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To avoid 'brain drain,' can bay area learn to be hip?

ROBERT TRIGAUX
Published October 27, 2003

Tampa's Wendi Lee Randall is just the type of aspiring and sophisticated person any metropolitan area in the country would hope to keep. At 34, she's worked at Tech Data and TECO Energy and is halfway through an MBA program at the University of Tampa.

The bad news is that Randall, like a lot of her fellow business students, is likely to leave the Tampa Bay area when she completes her MBA. Local job opportunities for MBA grads are lean, she says. And the salary offers border on insulting.

"I do love Tampa and never thought I would move again," she says. "But the opportunities are limited for MBAs in Florida."

There's an ominous message in this tale. Cities that lose talented folks like Randall to places with better jobs and a higher quality of life are candidates to becoming economic backwaters.

Young and educated adults, those 20 to 34 years old, are the future economic lifeblood of metro areas. They are a segment of the population that's already hard enough to find in the Tampa Bay market.

This is not idle patter but a looming demographic nightmare documented in such recent books as Impending Crisis: Too Many Jobs, Too Few People. The nation's 78-million baby boomers, ages 39 to 57, are just starting to retire. There are only 40-million people in the country between 25 and 34.

Do the math. Metro areas that fail to attract enough young adults face a looming job crisis. Even good jobs will disappear if qualified people cannot be found to fill them.

Belatedly, the Tampa Bay area's economic leaders are starting to respond to what is, in effect, a coming war among metro areas for the hearts and minds of young and educated adults. The battles could get vicious.

To get a grip on the issue, the Tampa Bay area has signed up for $25,000 to be included in a new study of about six metro areas across the country that are fighting a regional "brain drain" of young adults. Locally, the so-called Young & Restless study is a pet project of CreativeTampaBay Inc. This is the group that was formed after Richard Florida shared his ideas in Tampa during the spring. The Carnegie Mellon professor's book, The Rise of the Creative Class, has become a pop model for metro areas seeking to attract more diverse and creative people.

The Young & Restless study will assess what each participating metro area is doing right and wrong to compete for the country's relatively small crop of educated 20- to 34-year-olds. Regional economist Joe Cortright of the Impresa consulting company in Portland, Ore., will steer the study.

"Historically, this age group is important for a regional economy," Cortright says. "People this age are the most mobile and the most entrepreneurial." And those metro markets that can figure out how to attract them will be the success stories of the 21st century, he says.

The bay area's current obsession to appeal more to creative types and educated young adults is a good thing. But it is not an original idea. Metro areas across the country are waking up to the same coming shortage of skilled workers.

For metro areas, appealing to 20- to 34-year-olds is tricky. Hence the study's Young & Restless name. City leaders are trying, with little success, to understand why young adults flock to certain areas considered "hip" or "cool."

Earlier this month, USA Today ran a story that mentions Tampa's effort to attract young people with the headline: "Mid-sized cities get hip to attract young professionals." The story included an analysis of 14 cities - from Atlanta and Austin, Texas, to Tampa and Washington - showing what percentage of their populations consisted of college-educated adults between 25 and 34. San Francisco was highest with 18 percent, closely followed by Austin.

The Tampa Bay area, at 9 percent, was lowest.

"We have some work to do," acknowledges Deanne Roberts, a CreativeTampaBay co-founder and current chairwoman of the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce.

In fact, the historical preoccupation of Tampa Bay and Florida leaders with wooing retirees here is probably due for an overhaul.

The good news is that economic development leaders seem to realize they cannot rubber-stamp some snappy marketing campaign and expect educated young adults to come scurrying.

What draws young adults? Why are some metro areas considered hip and others lame? Good jobs, for one. Quality of life stuff - oceans or mountains, good art and entertainment, educational opportunity, affordable housing and an atmosphere that smiles rather than frowns on young adults - is also critical, if hard to measure.

In earlier work, Cortright picked Austin, Raleigh-Durham, N.C., Portland and Denver among those cities that gained a steady volume of young workers between 1990 and 2000. Indianapolis, Nashville and Charlotte, N.C., have also seen young adults flock to their cities.

In once-popular Seattle, the growth rate of young adults has slowed. The San Francisco Bay area is actually losing 25- to 34-year-olds. So is Chicago and such older-economy towns as Cincinnati, Pittsburgh and Buffalo, N.Y.

Midwest states, hardest hit by the brain drain of young adults, are hunting down those who have relocated elsewhere and are trying to lure them back. It's slow going.

Just ask Detroit. More young adults left there than any other metro region between 2000 and 2002. Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm recently announced the creation of a statewide "Cool City" advisory panel to help suggest ways to make the state more attractive to young adults.

The problem, experts warn, is the more you lose, the harder it is to bring them back.

Even cities long associated with an abundance of bright young talent are concerned about the future. Consider Boston. Last week, its economic leaders unveiled a report warning that high housing costs, a tough job market and a perceived lack of urban vibrancy are discouraging many recent college graduates from staying in the area.

I wouldn't worry about Boston just yet. Still, today is the very day that my nephew and his girlfriend - well educated and in their 20s - are leaving Boston after many years. They are tired of the expensive housing and, frankly, just want to try something very different from New England.

They are heading for a distant, warmer city with some buzz that's growing like gangbusters: Las Vegas.

Ah, those young and restless adults.

- Robert Trigaux can be reached at trigaux@sptimes.com or 727 893-8405.

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