Katie Syroney, Cincinnati Opera’s communications director
Cincinnati is locked in a battle with cities throughout the country to win its share of the lifeblood of long-term growth: young professionals.

While replenishing the workforce has always been an important part of maintaining a healthy economy, this decade’s graduates and workers between ages 25 and 34, more than generations past, care which city they work in as much as the particulars of the job they land.

The recession may have temporarily shifted the emphasis for young workers and graduates to just finding or keeping a decent job, but economists say those workers will again have the luxury of picking the cities that best suit their lifestyles. Cincinnati’s future depends on tens of thousands landing here.

The increased importance of young professionals stems from a merging of three social trends, all of which point to a coming scarcity of top talent that Cincinnati and every other U.S. city will be in competition to lure, according to Dr. George Vredeveld, a University of Cincinnati economist. The three social trends include the retirement of baby boomers, the leveling off of a 50-year trend of women entering the workforce in increasing numbers, and lessening the 50-year trend of larger segments of the population earning college degrees.

The cities that make themselves most attractive to these young professionals will leave other cities behind. “The battleground between regions of the country as far as economic development is concerned will start to rely more and more on labor force issues,” Vredeveld predicts.

Cincinnati (and much of the state in general) has not fared well in the competition, with more graduates and young professionals leaving the state than coming, he adds.

Census statistics back that up. While Greater Cincinnati’s overall population has grown since 1990, the number of residents ages 25 to 34 has shrunk to 272,000 in 2007 from 305,000 in 1990.

“It’s been something that’s been ongoing, and since our population isn’t growing at a high rate, it doesn’t work in our favor,” says Karen Michelsen, Cincinnati USA Regional Chamber’s vice president of marketing.

The good news: The efforts of business and government leaders in the last few years to make Greater Cincinnati a destination for top talent appear to be paying dividends. While the number of young workers in the last census is smaller than in 1990, the young workforce actually grew from its nadir of 264,000 in 2005 to bounce back to 272,000 in 2007.

That modest growth isn’t enough. Agenda 360, the ongoing regional growth plan assembled by the chamber, businesses, educators and government officials, has set out to grow the workforce by adding 150,000 workers ages 20 to 34 by 2020.

To help accomplish the goal, the chamber established Harnessing Young Professional Energy, or HYPE. It commissioned a Wisconsin group called Next Generation to assess the region’s appeal for YPs.

Cincinnati fared at least as well as its peers in seven categories. It excelled in cost of lifestyle and things to do around town, the study found.

“Our research with Millennials (primarily the offspring of baby boomers) finds that affordability is key. They’re coming out of college with an enormous amount of debt sometimes. That’s why we’re starting to see some higher out-migration numbers from the large cities into smaller cities like Cincinnati,” says Molly Foley, a Next Generation consultant.

When Jon Miller first considered a job offer from Procter & Gamble three years ago, he pulled out an atlas with his mother to figure out where in Ohio Cincinnati was located. He had negative associations with mid-continent cities Cleveland and Buffalo, he says, but Cincinnati didn’t even hit the radar for his family in Virginia.

Three years later, you’d be hard-pressed to find a bigger Cincinnati booster. Miller, now a coffee trader with Folger’s and a Walnut Hills resident, is chairman of the economic development committee of Mayor Mark Mallory’s YP Kitchen Cabinet. His committee has identified the city’s lack of any sort of national reputation, positive or negative, as a major shortcoming.

“If we have no brand image, then we’re at a detriment there and will not grow as quickly,” he says. The group’s answer is marketing the city as a center for green industry, a place for entrepreneurs with ideas for environmentally friendly businesses to set up shop, and for YPs interested in sustainable living to settle.

“I think we’re a good city and we’re right on the cusp of being a great city. And we just need to push a little farther,” he says.

Miller, 27, is a graduate of the United States Naval Academy. He was thrilled to move to a city where he could buy a house at 25 instead of saving up to buy one at 35 in Washington or another area with much higher real estate prices. Now engaged to an Alexandria, Ky., resident, Miller happily contemplates staying in town for the long haul.

“I love its compactness,” he says, citing easy access to downtown restaurants and nightlife, short drives to parks and rivers for canoeing, and accessibility to Red River Gorge or bourbon country for weekend getaways. Plus, “To come to Cincinnati from Washington’s horrific traffic jams and find out a traffic jam here means driving 45 mph, I thought, that works for me.”

The energy extends well beyond the urban core, as evidenced by Ryan Rybolt and his Sharonville-based company, Infintech, a custom electronic payment processor that works with chambers of commerce in 20 different markets across the country —including Kentucky, Texas, Indiana and Ohio.

Asked about room for improvement in luring and keeping young professionals, Rybolt, a co-chairman of HYPE, says the region would be better served if initiatives were combined under one umbrella instead of being divided among groups like Agenda 360 and Vision 2015 in Northern Kentucky. “We could also improve transportation — either streetcar or light rail. The city needs a mass transit system. It’s proven that once you put rails on the ground, it improves the economic growth of a city.”

Agenda 360 points to the need for Cincinnati to be an inclusive city for men and women of all races and backgrounds.

Michele L. Heath, senior risk manager at Ernst & Young and an African-American, found the city to be good enough with room for improvement when it came to diversity. Three years ago she had the chance to take her MBA from Ohio State University and work in risk management anywhere in the country. Having traveled for work 100 percent of the time at her previous job, what Heath craved was community.

Now in her early 30s, Heath has been able to nurture her love for the arts as a board member at Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park, where she co-chairs the diversity committee and is helping establish a YP Ambassador committee.

“It is important to me to get newer audiences,” she relates. “I think one of the things we lacked at the Playhouse was exposing it to new people.”

The Playhouse and other arts organizations were essential to Heath’s moving and staying here, she says. “I think we have a great arts community and the second thing is the opportunity for YPs to have leadership roles.”

A downtown resident, Heath has plunged into an active civic life, including graduating from the 2007-2008 Leadership Cincinnati Class, and board memberships at the YWCA, Wesley Education Center for Children and Families, Cincinnati Works, and CET PBS. She is the Greater Southern Ohio president for the National Association of Black Accountants and president of the Cincinnati chapter of the Black MBAs.

“I think the biggest reason this is the place I’m going to stay is just the support from the local community,” she says.

The need to keep Heath and her young colleagues happy is born out through a striking statistic at Ernst & Young. A full 90 percent of its employees are under 40, says Julia Poston, the company’s managing partner in Cincinnati.

Poston adds that 40 percent of the firm’s partners have been promoted to that level within the last five years, generally when they were in their mid-30s. “As baby boomers are retiring, we have a very youthful partner group,” she says. “It’s a treat for me to hire lots of young people every year because they’re incredible, lots of energy.”

Because Poston’s company has offices in cities throughout the country, she relies heavily on local graduates and is grateful for strong business programs at the region’s universities.

“It’s really not something we struggle a lot with here once people have decided they want to interview for a position in Cincinnati. We don’t try to recruit from New York or Chicago,” she says.

Poston applauds efforts to link YPs with one another, as well as the institutions and attractions that pique their interest. “I see a lot of focus on trying to make it a vibrant community for young people,” she says.

As study after study bears out, young professionals value a thriving arts and entertainment scene. With money to spend and, in many cases, no families yet, nightlife is important. Myrita Craig, 23, is a Duke University graduate who knows the arts. She spent six months in New York in an arts immersion program, seeing 300 performances of all kinds, from opera to avant-garde theater. 
The Cincinnati native knew she wanted to move somewhere after graduation that had a fantastic arts scene. To her surprise, it was her hometown. “When I moved back, I could kind of see it with new eyes. It was an affordable place to live compared to Manhattan. It had many more cultural outlets than Durham, N.C. For a city of our size, we have an extraordinary amount of arts and culture — world-renowned theater, fringe theater, avant-garde spaces in Over-the-Rhine.”
Craig received a bird’s-eye view of the arts scene as the Enjoy the Arts membership director and confirmed that the city had plenty to offer. Now the public relations director at the Freestore Foodbank, Craig found a creative outlet by becoming an avid liaison between young professionals and the Cincinnati Opera. “I was the first co-chair of the late-night opera gala (in 2007). We weren’t sure if people would come to Music Hall that first year, and we had 200 people show up,” she says.

She lived in Over-the-Rhine until recently when she moved to Hyde Park, but Craig plans to stay in the city. “I think there’s a lot of momentum, and that’s very exciting to me. The YPs already here are very excited about Cincinnati and are really trying to show those looking at Cincinnati that it’s a great place to live,” she says.

With all the current efforts, one of the remaining challenges is getting the word out, says Katie Syroney, the opera’s communications director.

“The persistent challenge seems to be connecting with these individuals in the first place: How can we consistently and effectively inform young people about all of the opportunities that are available them? Is there work that we need to do to convince the young workforce that the best way to enjoy one’s community is to become an active participant? Also, what more can we do to communicate on a national level about the opportunities here, to help change perceptions about what living in Cincinnati is really like?” she says.

The challenge of drawing young professionals to town will be greatest in growth industries like health care, according to Vredeveld. For Hillary Culp, a psychology research assistant at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center who just moved here in July, Cincinnati was a good fit.

Last year, the Indiana State University graduate struggled to find a good job and moved home to Seymour, Ind. She jumped at the offer from Children’s , for the job itself and the chance to live in a dynamic community. “I think it’s a great place. It’s nice how you can be close to the city and have all kinds of places to go and 15 miles away, live in a quiet suburb,” which, for Culp, is Loveland.

Culp focuses her work on attention deficit hyperactivity disorder research and is helping distribute a manual to counselors in the region. For her, the link to other YPs was more informal than chamber or United Way events.

“The majority of people I work closely with are right around the same age, and lots are from the area. It’s really easy to find out where to go,” she says.

Julia Abell, Children’s senior director of employment, says the trick to finding the right young professionals for her medical center is focusing on Midwesterners. “We know that recruiting people who live in the Midwest is a better strategy for us. There tends to be a culture shock of moving to a city like Cincinnati from the coasts.”

Children’s relies on the excellence of its reputation and the opportunities it provides to lure the best and the brightest. “A lot of the actual clinical types are coming here for the hospital. Their passion for what they do for a living trumps their desire to live in Boston or New York or wherever,” Abell notes.

Her sales pitch? “Housing prices and safe neighborhoods. We have an incredible rate of school choices to choose from. I’m of the feeling that Cincinnati is working hard to be attractive to YPs, and they’re doing a pretty good job despite the fact that we don’t have mountains or beaches.”

Craig’s answer to the naysayers is worth pondering: “I think we’re our own worst enemies sometimes. We’re not going to be Chicago or New York. That’s not what we’re going to be. But just enjoy Cincinnati for Cincinnati. It’s about changing our own perceptions so we can change other people’s perceptions.”