Sacramento Region Needs to Start Investing in its Young Professionals

kirschenmannBy Sandra Kirschenmann

When I was young and just out of college, my generation of young professionals selected a career, decided on what company we wanted to work for and went to live wherever that company offered us a job.

That first “job” for me, born and raised in Sacramento, was the U.S. Army. My Army career included stops in San Antonio, Washington, D.C., and Fort Ord.

These days, young professionals make career decisions in the opposite order. They decide where they want to live first, and choosing a career pathway is secondary.

Today’s young professionals think about the quality of the home they will make, the social interactions the region can offer, and how family fits into that picture, in addition to looking for career satisfaction.

This line of thinking drives companies to seek locations where they can find thick labor markets full of educated, creative young people. A region that can become “sticky” for creative, smart young professionals can also be very successful in attracting great companies.

This should become an aspiration for the Sacramento region.

We must strive to establish a “sticky” region for creative, educated young professionals. Since Sacramento isn’t a dense labor market, we must work on overcoming that by building opportunities to help young professionals find a career development pathway.

I had an interesting experience recently that illustrates how we default to a cultural value of rewarding seasoned professionals over creating opportunities for capable young professionals.

In helping to judge the award applicants for women in business, my judging colleagues were unanimous in their support for women who had “paid their dues” through years of service. Judges were much less interested in rewarding younger women who might be able to use the recognition as a platform for visibility and promotion. The selection process seemed shortsighted to me and not very strategic.

We need to abandon the time-honored method of rewarding people based on years of service. Instead, we should encourage and promote our talented young professionals. They will have a much longer working life ahead of them to “return” their human capital to the region than will the seasoned professional who is nearing retirement.

In fact, we should think seriously about advantaging the career progression of young professionals. Growing a rich pool of young professionals through “succession development” can help individuals transition into leadership positions, and free senior leaders to retire on their own schedules.

We should also recognize that the success of companies and organizations depends largely on our capacity to market products and services to the younger generation – people who are in the midst of building their families and their lives. They are often our primary customers – people who will be buying homes, cars, funding education and much more.

Having younger voices in our strategic conversations allows us to better understand the consumption behavior of the younger demographic and makes a lot of sense from a business development point of view.

Data indicate that the Sacramento region ranks low in the percentage of educated young adults. Only 29.4 percent possess a bachelor’s degree, compared with 43.4 percent in the San Francisco-Oakland-Fremont area, and 33.7 percent in San Diego-Carlsbad-San Marcos.

These regions possess much “thicker” labor markets, filled with educated young adults who can provide a strong workforce to fill key positions for companies considering relocation.

So, what can Sacramento do to improve the career pathway for young professionals?

•  Provide volunteer leadership opportunities in civic engagement, board participation and leadership groups, and start developing the skills they need to assume those leadership roles.

•  Working cohesively, Sacramento civic and business organizations must offer opportunities for involvement and visibility, and award promising young professionals for their outstanding contributions.

•  Establish organizational boards that include a young professional or two, either as voting or ex officio members.

•  Offer scholarships to important leadership development programs, such as the regional Cap to Cap event, and the annual study mission programs from regional Chambers of Commerce.

•  Mentor and/or sponsor promising young professionals in the workplace. Identify the necessary leadership skills and help map out the path to obtain them.

Let’s make 2014 a year that marks new regional investment in young professionals and brands Sacramento as an attractive location for corporate investment that can deliver a workforce full of talented, creative and educated young professionals.

Sandra Kirschenmann is the associate vice provost and executive director of Drexel University Sacramento. She authored this op-ed that was published in the Jan. 1 edition of the Sacramento Bee and is available at this link.

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