Talent remains the top priority for Memphis.

It requires us to align our energies and our strategies, but we run the risk of our penchant for big project answers to our problems – whether it is downtown redevelopment, neighborhood revitalization or economic growth – to keep us from the hardest work: creating, attracting and retaining talent.

It’s easy to build things. It’s not as easy to build the creative ecosystem, the culture of innovation and the connectivity that join creatives into a force for a stronger future.

That’s why we have a tendency to oversimplify what it takes to attract and retain talent. In op-ed column after op-ed column, advocates for their projects say they have the power to attract college-educated 25-34 year-old workers to our city.

The Thing

Here’s the thing: These outdoor recreational opportunities are important, but they won’t magically pull people into Memphis. They are the markers that talented workers look for to even consider a city, but they only keep us in the game.

After all, young professionals say they are looking for a city that is green. This doesn’t just mean we should have a new walking/biking trail and a new park. It also means that we have to exhibit green behavior, sustainable practices, less sprawl and better transportation policies.

That’s why Memphis has reached the point where everything that we do needs to be evaluated within a lens of talent, every investment needs to be analyzed to determine if it creates or attracts talent and every new program needs to be weighed by its impact on retaining talent.

In other words, talent is the great issue of our city today. Because of it, we’re posting comments made by Leadership Memphis official Letitia Robertson last week:

The Lessons

This week’s theme is talent, and as our colleague Carol Coletta has said, the most important indicator of success for a city is the presence of talent – college-educated talent. To some, this is interpreted as meaning that we should recruit and attract more of 25-34 year-olds to Memphis.

That’s one piece of it, but the truth is that in the battle of talent, we are having problems competing for the best and brightest.

The better option for us is to play to our strengths, and that’s why creating talent in Memphis is more important than attracting talent.  As we have mentioned frequently, Memphis has a distinctive bulge in students when we are compared to the 50 top metros in the U.S. In other words, while other areas of the country in the coming decades will be facing serious workforce shortages, we will not have that problem. If – and it’s a big if – we can move these students to a line receiving a college degree and into the economic mainstream.

To do it, Memphis City Schools has to see itself differently: It’s in the talent business.

There are serious reasons that we need to be focused on the 105,000 students in its classrooms – religious reasons, charitable reasons, and social reasons – but set all that aside for the moment. The biggest reason that we need to treat these young people as our talent assets rather than as problems is because it’s in our own self-interest, becasue if we can increase the percentage of college-educated Memphians by only 1 percent, it will create $1 billion in economic impact.

If we had a $1 billion company knocking on our doors and talking about coming to Memphis, we would give them tax incentives, we would romance them, and we would beg them to move here. We have a $1 billion opportunity if we can only get one percent more of our people out of college. And it’s worth keeping in mind that we have about 125,000 people in our community who have attended some college but did not graduate, so perhaps we can start with them for a short-term win while also concentrating on the students in our city schools classrooms.

#1 – Talent

Every metro in the country is focusing on how to get and keep more 25-34 year-old college-educated workers. Keep in mind that this group is highly coveted, because they are the most mobile, best educated and most entrepreneurial generation. And cities like ours who want them and want to keep them have to prove that they have the kind of quality of life that these talented workers say they are looking for – clean, green, safe, and a place where they want to live the life they want to live.

Last year, Geoff Calkins of The Commercial Appeal talked to Leadership Memphis about our civic tendency to project our own lack of civic self-worth onto our sports programs.

As you remember, he said that was the reason that we shrugged our shoulders and said, why, of course we lost the NCAA championship game in the last few minutes; of course, the Grizzlies can’t make it into the playoffs; of course, we don’t have a National Football League team.

Our Special Gift

It’s easy in our city to feel overwhelmed by its challenges and undervalued as sources of change. But we are indeed he ones we have been waiting for. The most exciting things happening in Memphis today aren’t coming top-down from leaders of government or high-profile civic groups and organizations. Rather, the best reasons to be excited about Memphis are the number of grassroots and neighborhood programs begun by people like you who care about their city and are determined that it can be better.

It’s what Mr. Calkins called “Memphis’ special gift.” He said that what he loved about this city is that “people care and look out for each other. Sometimes in the midst of the drumbeat of fear and negativism here, I have to stop and remind myself what I love about Memphis: the opportunity is there for all of us to shape Memphis. Every one of us can make a difference. It’s not that we have an obligation. It’s a gift. It’s an opportunity that doesn’t exist in other places. You can easily get involved in what gives your life purpose and meaning.”