We think that Memphis Mayor A C Wharton may be the only city mayor with an Office of Talent and Human Capital.

It was a strong first step.  Now we need two more.

Talent is the overriding factor in the economic success of a city.  The other two factors: opportunity and place.

The creation of the Office of Talent and Human Capital made a statement about the mayor’s understanding that the future of Memphis hinges on its ability to retain, develop, and attract college-educated workers.  Its creation also says volumes about the sense of urgency that all of us should feel at the hemorrhaging of talent and our position on the lowest rungs of the largest 51 metros when it comes to the percentage of people with college degrees.


As our colleague Carol Coletta, as president of CEOs for Cities in Chicago, concluded from the landmark research of her organization, about 60% of a city’s economic success stems directly from how many college-educated people it has in its workforce.  She also concluded that cities with more talented people are the ones attracting more talented people.  In other words, the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer.

Memphis is unquestionably poor in talent, and the fight to keep from getting poorer requires all of us to treat it as the overriding priority for our region.  Let’s repeat, we are not in the lower rungs of U.S. cities.  We are in the lower rungs of U.S. metros. People whose only advice is for Memphis to get its act in order are in denial, because all of us in this region are on the wrong side of a trend in which only slightly more than a dozen cities are soaking up all the talent.

In our region, that sponge is Atlanta, which is Mecca for so many of our best and brightest African-American college graduates.  In recent years, Nashville is putting up a good battle with Atlanta for migrating Memphians.  These two cities were frequent destinations for the five 25-34 year-olds that left Memphis over a decade.

It was a big driver in the trend from 1998 to 2007 when Memphis MSA gained households – 6,259 – but they tended to have lower incomes than the people who left, leaving us with a net loss of $435 million in income.  In the ranking of U.S. metros, that left us at #89 in the increase in households, but #318 among the 363 metros for new income.

Tough Trends

By way of comparison, Nashville was #15, attracting 51,563 households with incomes of $2.3 billion.  In fact, we contributed 2,530 households to that number along with $162 million income.  To put this into perspective, fewer than 50 households moved from the Nashville region here.  Meanwhile, 1,975 Memphis region households moved to Atlanta ($97 million in income).

The loss in income appears to be continuing. In 2008, 840 Shelby Countians with an average salary of $26,500 moved to Nashville/Davidson County, and 562 came from there to here, but they only earned $23,100.  Meanwhile, 41 people earning an average of $27,900 moved from DeSoto County to Nashville/Davidson County and 55 people moved from Nashville to DeSoto County but they had an average salary of only $17,700.

In other words, there’s little reason to expect that the income deficit gap doesn’t continue.  It should be a wake-up call that our strategies for expanding our economy aren’t working.  Then again, we shouldn’t act surprised, because the Memphis region is exactly the one we set out to create – America’s distribution center, real estate development disguised as economic development, cheap land, and cheap labor.

The good news is that the talent message is now widespread.  Leadership Memphis has adopted the Talent Dividend – increasing college-educated people here by 1% for a payback of $1 billion – as its priority and MPACT Memphis has created a valuable database of information about what young professionals believe and what they want here.   To punctuate all this, Mayor Wharton established the country’s first Office of Talent with the aim of focusing city resources and the mayor’s bully pulpit on the need to increase the talent in our region.

One Down, Two to Go

It’s been a year since the office was created and about a year since Leadership Memphis set the Talent Dividend as its prime goal, and right now, representatives of both are in Chicago at the national Talent Dividend meeting.  They are joining a group of cities whose interest was sparked by a $1 million prize to be given to the city that records the greatest increase in college-educated workers between now and 2014.

There are about three dozen cities that have registered to compete for the money, but we have a one year head start on most of them.  As a result, it’s a good time for everyone working on the talent issue to report on the progress that’s been made in the past year to move toward an increase in college-educated residents and galvanize us behind a blueprint for success.

Mayor Wharton’s decision to create the Office of Talent received derisive responses from some people, notably those who criticize anything that deviates from old school government work.  It goes without saying that old school government thinking got us into the hole that we’re in and it’s why Mayor Wharton is on the right track to shake things up.

So Memphis is working hard on talent, which leaves us to address the two other factors driving economic success: opportunity and place.


Mayor Wharton and Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell have created EDGE as a new umbrella organization for most public economic development agencies.  It’s our hope that EDGE does not become just a new vehicle for traveling down the same old economic development road.

Rather, we hope that EDGE will be about more than just about getting all the public tools in one toolkit or about streamlining the system to give away more incentives.  Rather, we hope that EDGE does what we don’t do enough: think strategically, focusing on the drivers of economic success, thinks like entrepreneurship, minority business development, and talent.

Hopefully, EDGE will take care of the opportunity factor, which only leaves place of the three forces defining city economic success. There are several interesting ideas and programs to improve the quality of place in Memphis, but we continue to believe that we start by creating the model public realm, the highest objective of Sustainable Shelby.  It’s our bias that it should be on the riverfront or downtown.

As for government, we like the idea proposed by Leadership Memphis President David Williams that City of Memphis should create a Division of PLACE – Parks, Libraries, Arts, Culture, and Education (Museums).  Today, these activities are scattered across several divisions of city government with little connectivity or common purpose.

3 for 3

While a new division could reduce the city’s number of divisions – it has four too many now – and save money, the most important benefit is to get our priorities right and to make sure there is no mistake about what they are.

The Division of PLACE completes and sends the clear message that Memphis has the right three over-arching priorities: talent, opportunity, and place.