By Jennifer Hill
Community Builders

How do we bring in talent to the towns and cities in the West?

Community members must make recruiting talent their personal business, according to a recent article on governing.com titled “Beyond the ‘Brain Drain: How Cities Really Need to Sell Themselves,” written by urban affairs analyst and entrepreneur Aaron M. Renn.

“Given how few communities are actually selling themselves today, this is an easy way for a place to distinguish itself in the marketplace,” Renn wrote.

But what if your community first needs to strengthen its infrastructure and downtown, as well as maintain its sense of place, before even thinking about attracting new talent?

This is the chicken-and-egg-cycle of community and economic development: Every community wants to attract and retain good talent, but it often comes with the price of having a strong community to begin with – which is reliant on having a strong economy.

To break through this cyclical conundrum, many communities are finding the answer lies in creating a diversified economy. This means providing a framework and structure for diverse businesses to flourish – often through investing in public infrastructure improvements that allow development to happen more quickly.

In the past, large industrial companies drove the demand for labor. Workers packed up and moved based on where they could find a better job, regardless of the location’s attractiveness. Today, the American workforce has transitioned from an industrial economy to an innovation economy, where whoever moves, wins.

“This willingness to relocate is a large factor in America’s prosperity, and it always has been,” writes Enrico Moretti in “What Workers Lose By Staying Put,” a piece for online.wsj.com. About half of American households change addresses every five years, Moretti explains, and a significant number relocate to a different city – a number that would be unthinkable in Europe.

Approximately 33 percent of Americans reside in a state other than the one they were born in, Moretti adds, up from 20 percent in 1900. On the flip side, domestic migration overall is declining. Largely, only those with the means and college educations are moving.

A recent article in Slate, “Bismarck is Lovely This Time of Year,” asserts that to fix the economy, people of all education levels must be encouraged to start moving again.

“Back in 1985, over 20 percent of the population moved,” wrote author Matthew Yglesias. “That number fell steadily to 11.6 percent in 2011, before ticking back up to 12 percent last year. What’s more, even if you just look at interstate moves, a lot of the shifting doesn’t appear to be related to a search for employment. New York to Florida (presumably retirees) leads the Census Bureau’s list of the 10 most common state-to-state moves. None of the 10 lowest-unemployment states are destinations of the top 10 interstate moves, and none of the five highest-unemployment states are departure points for the top 10 interstate moves.”

Western cities and towns with diversified economies will attract and retain talented people. To do this, communities must allow for and provide the public infrastructure and policy framework needed to spur development.

Jennifer Hill is a program manager with the Sonoran Institute’s Western Colorado Program focusing on urban design, placemaking and linkages for energy planning. Inspired and supported by the Sonoran Institute, Community Builders is a network that helps community leaders in the western U.S. This piece was adapted from one originally written for communitybuilders.net.