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Three Ideas to Solve Cleveland’s Population Problem

Local officials are looking for ways to help boost the area’s population, which is largely stagnant. The city is hoping to change the nation’s perceptions of Cleveland by pursuing three new goals.

Austin, San Jose, Seattle – and Cleveland?

It may be a stretch to imagine Northeast Ohio on a list of the nation’s top tech hubs.

But a group of community leaders says promoting the city as a destination for IT jobs is one way to help boost the region’s population.

“We don’t think of ourselves as a tech hub and yet we have 58,000 people who work in the sector,” said Baiju Shah, president and CEO of the Greater Cleveland Partnership. “It’s incumbent upon us to change that perception.”

The Greater Cleveland Partnership is one of several founding organizations of the Cleveland Talent Alliance, created in 2022 with the singular focus of attracting and retaining working-age adults to the region.

The need is obvious: The population of Greater Cleveland – unlike several peer cities including Columbus, Cincinnati and Nashville – is largely stagnant, which means employers are having an increasingly difficult time filling new positions.

“There are 13,000 open IT positions throughout the region,” said Shah. “Fortunately, our business sectors have been growing – but they’ve been growing faster than the population.”

The Talent Alliance, with 14 member organizations, has spent much of the past 18 months coming up with strategies to attract more workers to the region. This week, the alliance announced three areas of focus for the group, along with performance metrics to be achieved by 2030.

Among the goals:

  • Increase the percentage of working-age adults who indicate a willingness to relocate to Cleveland.
  • Convert more college students in Northeast Ohio into permanent residents.
  • Elevate Cleveland to a top-three tech city in the Midwest.

David Gilbert, president and CEO of Destination Cleveland, said the organization has set ambitious goals with an aggressive timeline to achieve them.

“We are in the process of reversing decades-long trends,” he said. “We’re trying to do it not in decades but in years.”

Gilbert said the need for a coordinated effort first surfaced in 2019, when local companies approached Destination Cleveland about using its tourism brand to help attract employees to the region. In response, Destination Cleveland convened a group of community leaders to come up with a broader effort focused on workforce attraction.

The effort is focused on more than job creation, because a job – even a really good one– is no longer enough to attract young workers to Northeast Ohio.

“To put it simply, if people aren’t open to moving to Cleveland, the rest doesn’t matter,” said Gilbert. “We have to make it easier for them to want to live here.”

Here, then, how the Cleveland Talent Alliance plans to do that:

Improve Perceptions of Cleveland as a Place to Live and Work

A 2023 survey commissioned by Destination Cleveland on behalf of the Talent Alliance queried 2,500 working-age adults in nine target markets, including New York City, Washington, D.C., Atlanta, San Francisco, Chicago, Detroit, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh and Columbus.

Respondents were asked this question: “If a job opportunity that matched your salary and skill requirements were offered to you in Cleveland, would you relocate there?”

Forty-two percent of those surveyed said yes. The Talent Alliance is hoping to increase that percentage to 46 percent in the next six years.

Destination Cleveland plans to build on the success of its work at attracting visitors to the region – by converting some of those visitors into residents.

The work on this has already started, with the launch last year of a website ( that aims to serve as a one-stop shop for anyone considering relocating, with information about jobs, housing, neighborhoods, cost of living comparisons, education, cultural amenities, recreational opportunities and other factors.

Bob Sims, chief human resources officer at Park Place Technologies in Mayfield Heights, acknowledged that it can be a challenge getting potential applicants to consider relocating to Cleveland.

“But once you get people here, they don’t want to leave,” said Sims. “It’s a great place to live at the end of the day.”

Retaining Northeast Ohio College Graduates

One obvious pool of prospective workers: The 230,000 students who go to college within the Northeast Ohio region.

“We have more college students in this region than any other region in the state,” said Shah. “When I share that information with business leaders, they’re shocked.”

He added, “We are a college town.”

But not enough of those students stick around after graduation.

Currently, about 48 percent of Northeast Ohio college students become residents after they graduate; the Talent Alliance seeks to increase that percentage to 55 percent.

Bill Koehler, CEO of Team NEO, noted that the region’s population could bump up by an extra 2,000 every year just by increasing the number of graduates who stay.

“We need younger people,” he said. “And when we get them here and they stay here, there’s a compounding effect.”

Team NEO and other organizations are already working to entice students to stay – by hosting internship fairs, summer social gatherings and other events to better tie college students to the community.

Baldwin Wallace University President Robert Helmer is all-in on the effort.

The Berea university recently created a task force that seeks to answer this student-focused question: What would make you want to stay in Cleveland?

“We know a job isn’t enough anymore,” said Helmer. “This generation is looking for quality of life, a sense of belonging, as well as a job.”

A study by Baldwin Wallace in 2019 found that about 90 percent of BW students do stay in the Cleveland area after graduation – far higher than the regional average.

Even so, Helmer believes more can be done.

All higher education institutions in the region, he said, should be collaborating on programs that introduce students to the many benefits of living in Northeast Ohio.

“A university has a responsibility to its community,” he said. “We want our graduates to stay here.

Associating Cleveland with the Tech Sector

The 2023 survey, conducted by Development Counsellors International, asked respondents to select three cities that they “most strongly associate with the IT sector.”

Out of six choices, Cleveland came in last – behind (in order) Chicago, Pittsburgh, Columbus, Detroit and Cincinnati.

In fact, Cleveland has more tech jobs – 58,000 – than either Columbus (51,338) or Pittsburgh (42,253), according to Team NEO.

Even people who work in Cleveland’s tech economy are surprised by that.

“I don’t think Cleveland’s perceived as a tech hub,” said Sims, with Park Place Technologies, the fast-growing data center and network-optimization firm.

He added that the city doesn’t necessarily have a bad reputation within the industry – “probably more of a non-reputation.”

“It can be a challenge to bring people in at times, particularly if they’re from outside the Midwest,” he said.

The Talent Alliance is already working to change that – hosting get-to-know Cleveland events and activities at recent tech gatherings, including at the Women in Cybersecurity event in 2022 and the Forbes Under 30 Summit last fall.

Shah said the group decided to focus on IT jobs because the tech industry touches so many other areas, from health care to manufacturing to banking.

Cleveland, he said, is already perceived to be a leader in health care, manufacturing and finance. It needs to up its profile in tech.

Part of the perception problem, said Shah, is that when people think about the tech industry, they generally think about consumer tech. Many of the tech companies in Cleveland, he said, provide less visible business-to-business services, including Park Place, which provides data center support to clients in 140 countries.

The company employs about 450 in Greater Cleveland, with another 1,800 around the globe, and is planning to move to a larger headquarters in Highland Heights later this year.

“This is a really important conversation – about where we get talent,” said Sims. “We have senior people living in Austin now because that’s where the talent was.”

Despite the challenges, Sims said he’s optimistic about Cleveland’s chances.

“There’s a fantastic story to tell here,” said Sims, who recently returned to Northeast Ohio after several years away. “From a quality of life perspective, Cleveland is a great place to be.”

Member organizations of the Cleveland Talent Alliance include Destination Cleveland, Greater Cleveland Partnership, Cleveland Leadership Center, Team NEO, Cuyahoga County, city of Cleveland, Cleveland Foundation, Engage! Cleveland, JobsOhio, Jumpstart, Global Cleveland, MAGNET, Fund for our Economic Future and Cleveland Neighborhood Progress.

©2024 Advance Local Media LLC. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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