Still at starting line: Drive to stop exodus of young talent

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A bright, young workforce can act as a magnet, drawing entrepreneurial thinkers, risk-takers and innovation — all vital to a city on the move.

But it has been hard to keep young people in Colorado Springs in recent years and, so far, efforts to reverse the “brain drain” here are still very much at their nascent stage.

In fact, no work has begun on any of the nearly two-dozen items on a list of talent-recruitment and retention-related recommendations made by the economic development consulting firm Angelou Economics in March 2009.

The need for such a push became evident during 2009 when an Angelou, commissioned by more than a dozen civic and business stakeholder groups, reported that the city would have work harder to keep even more young talent from leaving for greener pastures.

Angelou gave the Pikes Peak region high marks for its high school graduation rates and strong K-12 school systems. It also noted that the Springs is home to the fastest-growing CU campus in the state and to an impressive community college system, as well as to half a dozen other four-year colleges.

But based on its findings, the firm concluded that the region was vulnerable to “rapidly losing the critical young professional demographic (25-44 age group).”

It wasn’t always this way.

In the 1990s, the area was known as a mecca for the operations of dozens of high-tech start-ups and giants. Names like Oracle, USA.net, MCI, Digital and Hewlett-Packard were common. These firms attracted throngs of highly paid software developers and engineers to the area. Many of them were either new or still early in their careers.

Jay Jesse, chief executive of Colorado Springs-based Intelligent Software Solutions, recalls having little trouble finding qualified engineers with advanced degrees and security clearance when he founded his company about 12 years ago.

That’s no longer true.

“It has changed in the last five years or so,” he said. “We’re still able to cherry-pick some of the best computer graduates from UCCS to fill the jobs we need. But back when I started the company, we (Colorado Springs) had a reputation as a place where engineers had a lot of companies to choose from. That’s just not the case any more.”

Leveraging assets

In reaction to Angelou’s warning, the Operation 6035 Implementation Committee, headed by businessman Phil Lane since February, has been busy getting up to speed.

Lane promises an update on what “Operation 6035 will look like going forward” in the next few weeks.

“There’s a lot of fact-finding and interviewing going on of close to 60 groups around town,” he said.

That effort alone will result in a listing of each organization and its mission on the Operation 6035 website soon.

It’s hoped that creating such an inventory will allow these groups to better understand what each does and how each might help move things along.

But don’t expect any overnight results.

For starters, nurturing and retaining talent is just one of seven key concerns Angelou suggested the community address.

And, according to Lane, at this point it would be premature to launch into a point-by-point effort to solve all the area’s weaknesses.

“We’ve got to get the game plan right before we go out and start recruiting new entrepreneurs. … What we need is the infrastructure in place to support them,” he said.

Lane’s slow-go approach to naming subcommittees and to assign responsibilities to team leaders or volunteers is based, he said, on several factors.

One of those is that the Operation 6035 committee sees Angelou’s economic development strategy plan as a guideline, not a “go-do” set of marching orders.

“Some of the recommendations are very broad and need to be refined first,” he said.

That said, his “go-do” list is likely to leverage many of the city’s existing assets.

In particular, Lane pointed to both the U.S. Air Force Academy and the U.S. Olympic Committee’s presence as two of the area’s most “underutilized” resources.

“The Academy, like UCCS, has access to some significant research funding — and it has world-class labs. The opportunity for entrepreneurs to collaborate (with USAFA) on technology transfer, for example, means companies can take an idea from concept to market,” he said.

The more that happens, the more jobs younger people can expect to see here.

Based on conversations with USOC’s CEO Scott Blackmun, Lane also sees the potential to build on the city’s already-strong brand as a center for health and fitness.

Other strengths Lane believes have been underplayed are the Pikes Peak region’s family and religious communities.

“Everybody thinks ‘single professionals’ when they refer to young talent. But a lot of young professionals have two kids and want a great place to raise them with great schools. We’ve got that,” he said.

Likewise, in spite of some problems with its national profile as an intolerant city, Lane believes that Colorado Springs’ faith-based community can be a positive for young families.

“I lived in Chicago for 11 years. … I’m well aware of some perception out there. We have some intolerant people here, but they don’t have to define us,” he said.

Carrying the torch

While Lane and his seven-member Operation 6035 committee work on their pre-action plan items, others are carrying the “let’s-keep-our-young-talent” torch.

UCCS, the Economic Development Corp. and the Chamber of Commerce all devote resources to the issue.

More than three years ago, for example, CU-Colorado Springs Chancellor Pam Shockley-Zalabak made sure provisions for advanced degree programs and new majors were added to the school’s five-year plan.

In 2003, for example, the Center for Homeland Security was founded to offer graduate certificates in Homeland Defense. A bachelor’s of innovation degree was also introduced in 2009.

Partnerships with public and private organizations such as Colorado Springs Utilities, Palisades at Broadmoor, NORTHCOMM and USAFA also enable undergrads and post-graduate students to live and work in the city, she said.

Gary Markle, CSEDC vice president of local industry, says his organization supports a number of program aimed at supporting young entrepreneurs including the Colorado Springs Tech Incubator and groups like the Chamber’s Rising Professionals and Young Professionals.

EDC has also added staffer who will serve as a liaison to Operation 6035.

The key, Markle said, will be to provide a broader backdrop of exciting, innovative jobs and to bring companies that offer those jobs to Colorado Springs.

“To some extent, brain drain will happen,” he said. ““If a student wants to try an opportunity in London, what parent wouldn’t support them? It really depends on what a young person is looking for.”

“If (they’re) looking for cool night life, we’re not quite there,” he said. “But if an individual is smart, likes the outdoors and wants a good job, Colorado Springs is the place.”

Convincing the younger set will be the challenge.

7 Responses to Still at starting line: Drive to stop exodus of young talent

  1. When one sees a high bridge over a wide and raging river – a bridge that is known to be unsound and about to collapse – one generally does not drive over that bridge.

    I think this may be a reason why young, educated professionals leave the area and why others are not moving to the area. And why there is no interest by major firms in moving to Colorado Springs.

    Until the basic services are provided in a sustainable manner, and the means to maintain and expand the regional infrastructure is found, there are far more favorable choices for young innovative professionals to choose from.

    I think we are looking at another 12 years of stagnation in the Pikes Peak region until the current crop of leaders, and those currently running, have passed their prime, are out of office, and a new, young business-oriented group of analytical professionals see the need to throw their hats into the ring.

    Rick Wehner
    June 12, 2010 at 9:47 am

  2. Colorado Springs has changed so much over the course of 6 years (+/-) and not for the good either. Most recently let’s look at the MMJ issue. Rhere are pot shops on every corner, City and County leaders lie, steal and manipulate the public (stormwater fees, threatening to limit police and fire or the homesless camps just to name a couple) the list goes on. I don’t blame the bigger companies for leaving or not relocating here. They don’t like what they see, in fact my wife and I (35 & 38) both with advanced degrees are rushing to get out of COS after 13 years. The article made mention of Young Professionals. Let’s set the record straight: the Colorado Springs Young Professionals (the group) are a joke. Nothing but a happy hour crowd looking for a reason to drink. Anyway enough ranting, this town is getting used and abused by so many people and it’s time for the real Young Professionals and Entrepreneurs with real talent to exit stage left.

    James Hubbard
    June 12, 2010 at 12:00 pm

  3. Well the Young Professionals (the Group) – more night time activity, like bars downtown and side walk drinking. I hope enough of them got laid to make it worth the destruction of the downtown area for the other young professionals, the kind that stay and make a city, with their young families. This rag gave more than enough support for the drinking and sex seeking young professionals and should be ashamed to what has happened to our downtown. Near riots, gangs hanging out, rowdies on the street, etc. Who in their right normal mind would want to go downtown at night with their wife or family?
    I came here with my young family (EE/MBA + BS between 2 of us) when high tech was tops, this area was growing, and we were calling ourselves Silicon Mountain, but the short sightedness of the city and state government that thought mountains and skiing would make up for tax concessions put a stake in the heart of the high tech business. While those are nice benefits, any business is going to look at the cost of doing business and Colorado was too high.

    Now, we worry more about the bums on the creek than the revenue producers in this town. Sign of the times as Washington is doing the same short sighted two step.

    jocko
    June 13, 2010 at 2:24 pm

  4. I’m surprised that this article about retaining and attracting young professionals has no mention of the need for a strong arts scene and lots of cultural activities. Arts and cultural activities are a vital part of community economic development and are a major force for attracting and retaining young professionals. Data from economists like Richard Florida have proved time and time again that the arts are an essential component of a thriving economy. (And that’s in addition to the fact that the arts stimulate economic revitalization, boost cultural tourism and can also be used to bring life back to depressed downtown urban areas and boost real estate values.)

    We know young employees (and their young families) will enjoy our bountiful sunshine and a fantastic mountain playground. But when the sun goes down, they will be looking for things to do. And that’s where the arts comes in.

    Colorado Springs stands to benefit from the wave of momentum that has been swelling in the arts sector for the past several years. (Just visit http://www.PeakRadar.com to see what I mean!) I sincerely hope the implementation of the Operation 6035 embraces this opportunity and specifically leverages our local arts and culture sector to promote economic development. Including the arts industry as Operation 6035 moves forward can only result in a more creative, innovative and robust effort.

    Bettina Swigger
    June 14, 2010 at 1:29 pm

  5. Bettina,

    As always, you’re spot on. I believe art, whether it’s dance, poetry, visual, music or theater, is the pulse of any community. If the young professionals are leaving, perhaps they don’t feel this place has a pulse anymore.

    Sarah
    June 14, 2010 at 3:51 pm

  6. Bettina,

    Look I am sure your a wonderful person but I have to say, ARTS don’t bring or keep talented young professionals. I personally like the arts, and I agree this town lacks good art but thats not the reason young talent leaves.

    Everyone on City Counsel, county commissioners, the mayor and city manager are to blame. They are so embedded with developers and special interest groups that keeps them from seeing 2 inches in from of their face. Their lack of proper decisions/management of this city result in Large companies that recruit young professionals to find Colorado Springs to be an bad location to do/continue doing business. Examples of the last sentence include Intel and HP and I am sure someone can list a few more. All we have left are call centers that pay $13 an hour and all you need is a pulse and HS diploma or GED.

    We as a city need to attract the companies that recruit and hire young professionals. Need to VOTE OUT ALL city and county management, and vote in management that won’t put on knee pads for developers or special interest. But as mentioned above this is a cycle that could last for many more years and as this cycle takes it’s course the city will continue to become less and less viable as a business location, that is unless your a developer.

    James Hubbard
    June 14, 2010 at 5:19 pm

  7. James,

    I thnk your logic is seriously flawed. In one breath you state that we need to attract the companies that recruit and hire young professionals and then in the next you slam developers. That you can’t see the disconnect there is the reason for much of our problems. As I work for a major developer, my opinion may be slanted, but consider this. Developers have invested hundreds of millions of dollars in Colorado Springs, unlike the no growth folk like Mr Bruce who don’t even fix up their rental properties. Thus the developers have a keen interest in the growth and viability of the Springs. The problem with our current city council is not that they cater to developers, but that they are so afraid of appearing to favor developers they do not send a clear message that the Springs is a good place to invest. The brain drain and loss of young professional opportunities in the Springs is due to this lack of a clear pro growth message to those who would invest in our community.

    What we need is a clear mandate… growth or no-growth. If we don’t want growth we should accept that we are not going to attract growth industries and someday we may just be a bedroom community that commutes to Denver or Pueblo for high tech employment. If we want growth, then we should have a masterplan for growth and every city council decision should be looked at through the lens of ‘how does this affect our growth plan’. Yes, there have to be winners and losers. That means that we don’t go ahead and authorize a new economic development zone for a possible retail project on the way north end of town to fund building a stretch of highway when that dilutes the effectiveness of other existing retail projects like the Kratt’s new shopping center on N Nevada, Norwood’s Interquest project and/or Chapel Hills Mall. It is not about cronyism, but it is about partnering. Chicago expedites green building projects ahead of non green projects. Why? Because Chicago wants to partner with its development community to adopt green development practices.
    f Colorado Springs wants to have a viable and active downtown, we need to partner to encourage downtown investment. The County moving County offices from downtown to the Intel campus is a perfect example of going in the wrong direction. Instead of promoting a project to land a Cabellas or Bass Pro shop on the north end of the city, our City Council should be encouraging them to build downtown, but first they should be doing whatever it takes to keep County offices downtown.

    steve
    June 21, 2010 at 12:02 pm