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.”
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.
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.