Officials who work in local economic and workforce development will often say that they have two things that make their city a desirable place to live: a low cost of living and employers with good jobs that need to be filled. But once those local officials share the good news, they ask the question many communities desperately need an answer to: Why do we still struggle to attract and retain the workforce talent we need?
Answering that question requires making a couple of major assumptions:
Assumption 1: The city actually has a low cost of living -- and it's the good kind. Cities trying to use cost of living as a message to attract talent can put too much emphasis on "cost" and not enough emphasis on "living." Dilapidated apartments and abandoned homes do not constitute the kind of low cost of living that will attract workers looking for opportunities. Free or cheap access to museums, parks and other civic amenities does. A low-cost-of-living message that actually attracts people to a city is borne from strategic decisions to make the community an affordable and attractive place to live, not a lack of demand driven by decades of despair.
Assumption 2: The job openings that need to be filled pay a living wage. Unfortunately, many economic and workforce developers define a "good" job as an "available" job -- even when the job pays poverty-level wages.
For the sake of this discussion, let's assume your city does afford residents a high quality of life at a low cost along with living-wage jobs. If that's the case, why isn't your community attracting talented workers by the droves? Why is the workforce that grew up in your community leaving the first chance they get?
The answer can at least partially be attributed to a failure of marketing. In other words, how is your city reaching the workforce you want to attract and retain? How is your city telling its story? If you're like the vast majority of cities, your story is being told:
• In press releases buried on your website that rarely (if ever) get picked up by a dwindling traditional press that itself is often ignored by young people.
• On formalized, boring social media feeds.
• In the occasional paid advertorial spread in your local business journal.
Imagine that Nabisco realized that not enough young people were purchasing Oreos. In response to this existential threat, Nabisco wrote a press release about how awesome Oreos are. Next, it paid the local business journal five thousand dollars to run a splashy roundtable piece where Nabisco employees talk about how awesome Oreos are.
If that sounds ridiculous, it's because it is ridiculous. No company would ever respond to a disappearing customer base by writing press releases and posting them to its own website. No company would ever try to reach a target market by advertising in a publication the target market doesn't read.
Yet press releases and business journal articles often comprise a city's entire approach to marketing. That isn't a strategy. At best it's a lack of imagination, and at worst it reinforces the negative stereotype that the public sector simply can't grasp basic business concepts -- like marketing.
Some cities can rely on an existing brand. The same reason Apple does comparatively little marketing is the same reason Palo Alto doesn't need to worry about retaining and attracting a talented workforce. However, most companies aren't Apple, and most cities aren't Palo Alto.
Your community needs to implement a marketing strategy focused on reaching your target audience on the platforms they use. Want to make a low-cost-of-living campaign? Step away from the press release about the recent Bureau of Labor Statistics Report. Get creative. Here's just one idea: Buy a GoPro camera, attach it to the intern in your communications department, and give the intern a $100 bill. Have the intern record everything he or she can do in a day with $100, then edit that down to a two-minute video. (Don't be scared. You shouldn't hire interns who don't know their way around modern technology.)
Of course, a particular city's failure to attract and retain talent may have nothing to do with marketing. Too often, "low cost of living" is a sunny rebranding of abandonment and despair, and "good jobs" are really low-paid, low-skill opportunities that do not require an educated workforce. But if your city actually does have good jobs and the right kind of low cost of living, maybe the failure to attract and retain talent is a failure to tell your story in a modern, engaging way.