Education & Workforce Development and Environment and Real Estate & Retail

ECONOMIC ANALYSIS: The fight to hire top talent: Do we have what it takes?

March 6, 2006

Most cities have mayors, police chiefs and tax collectors. But suppose for a moment they each had an additional staff position as well-the recruiter. Like a basketball coach or a talent scout, these recruiters would scour the country, looking for talented people who would fit into the community and add to the economic base. And when they found one, they would make their pitch, touting their town's assets and strengths, and urging the recruit to relocate. The prospects, on the other hand, would weigh each of the offers of the various recruiters, and make the best choice.

It's not all that far-fetched. We are a mobile society, after all, and attracting talent is precisely what the fastest-growing parts of the country have been doing all around us. But when it comes to recruiting individual people, it's businesses that do the actual legwork trying to entice the workers they want to hire, not cities and towns.

But the city and the community are a big part of the pitch, as any business that recruits nationally will tell you. What do prospects see when they evaluate your community against the competition?

This is exactly the question every city and town in Indiana should be asking. Because what a potential resident sees, and what you see within your own community, may be quite different. The prospective resident is typically younger, with school-age children, better educated, and more likely to be non-white or foreign-born than those who live in Indiana today. And if we do not collectively succeed in attracting them to live in our cities and towns, the road to prosperity will become long indeed.

That's because the high-paying, knowledge-intensive jobs every community covets are also the most highly specialized, and the notion that local residents can somehow fill them when they are created is just a myth. These jobs pay for themselves only when the right person fills them, and finding that match often requires a region-wide, or even a national, search.

For these prospects, the reference for comparison is how things are done in other states or even other countries, not how they're done here. Issues like the demise of single-class basketball or the folly of daylight-saving time are not on their radar screens. They want what everyone wants-to enjoy a decent standard of living, to live in a nice surrounding, and to have a good environment for their families-but their priorities may be different from yours or mine.

That's particularly so regarding one crucial aspect of our community's "product mix," namely, educational quality. As any real estate agent will tell you, for those who raise or expect to raise children, the quality of schools is a pivotal issue in deciding where to live, particularly for parents who are more educated themselves.

If we want to successfully recruit talented people, we need to convince them their children can and will receive the kind of top-notch, high-quality education here that will enable them to compete on their own when they become adults.

And the basis for comparison is not the school district next door. Rather, it is the school district of anyplace else in the country they might land. How does your own school system stack up against that kind of competition?

For most parts of Indiana, the answer is: not as well as we'd like. It's hard to gauge educational quality from a site visit, but the outward signs of our state's commitment to K-12 education are not positive.

Our average pay for teachers is low, our graduation rates are appalling, and we have yet to adopt full-day kindergarten.

It's a daunting problem with no easy or cheap solution in sight, certainly. But can the state really become a destination, instead of a point of origin, for talented people until it is addressed?



Barkey is an economist and director of economic and policy study at the College of Business, Ball State University. His column appears weekly. He can be reached by e-mail at pbarkey@ibj.com.
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