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Finding and Valuing Top Talent

With shifting demographics, varying skill levels, and different motivations, it is increasingly difficult to identify and cater to today’s labor pool. While some industries may have hyper-specific clusters, making location decisions a no-brainer, other companies must locate wherever the potential talent lives – which isn’t always a clear-cut process. But no matter the location decision or generation that a company is employing, providing flexibility and quality opportunities for talent is consistently important. We interviewed Martha O’Mara, the former head of Strategy and Innovation Consulting, Colliers International, at the 2019 Area Development Women’s Forum in Chicago about some of these insights. Below are some excerpts from our interview, which you can also watch here.

Q2 2020
Martha O’Mara PhD. Principal, Place Strategy Partners, LLC, spoke with Area Development about how companies can diversify out of high-cost locations while still accessing talented labor pools after her presentation at our 2019 Women in Economic Development Consultants Forum. Interview conducted by Margy Sweeney, Founder and CEO, Akrete, Inc. and Area Development Editorial Board member.
Editor’s note: This interview was conducted before the global COVID-19 pandemic, which will most likely change place and labor strategies profoundly moving forward. Happy Valley of Talent
When a site selector says, “I want really great employees, and I want to pay less than the average national wage for them,” he’s basically asking for the “happy valley” of talent – a magical, perfect place. Most everyone's looking for tech workers, so we really try to help them dive down and understand what it is they are really asking for, because there are so many different kinds of software engineers and so many other types of engineering talent along the entire product life cycle. They don't all have to be Silicon Valley geniuses or Boston area type of folks. How do you really understand those skills that you need and what kind of jobs they're going to be doing? This understanding helps us get closer to that fantastical “happy valley.” Typically, today, companies and employees like to be where there are multiple employment options; the idea that they will be able to find some undiscovered places is a myth, and we have to help them get over that.

Unexpected Markets for Happy Valley Talent
I recently encouraged a client to go to Kansas City. It had a really solid population of software engineers. This is a company that also has a graphic design component to its work, and its work is seasonal. So, with Hallmark cards located in the same city, it seemed like there would be a lot of needed talent there, and we did look at that. I'm not sure what their final decision was, but I really try to get company representatives to look at the cities in the middle of the country. I think there are a lot of cities there that, while not undiscovered, still have untapped potential. Everyone wants to know where the next Austin is going to be, or the next Nashville. You can learn from some of these cities in terms of what they've done to make themselves more attractive, but I think there's a lot to be said for those cities in the middle of the country which have a nice quality of life and more affordable housing. Just going to the low-cost labor location for most things today isn't going to solve your business strategy problem because we've automated the low-cost labor out of pretty much every process, particularly when it comes to manufacturing, or even information technology. Martha O’Mara PhD. Principal, Place Strategy Partners, LLC

How a Mid-Tier City Can Make Itself Attractive to Big Companies
Again, it depends on what kind of businesses a community is going after. I deal with what I call “information-age” companies, i.e., office-type jobs. I think part of it is focusing on knowing yourself, knowing what's there, understanding what industries you have now, and what are adjacent industries to those industries, because people aren't going to go work somewhere where there is no other game in town. People might work at the only customer care center in the area or something along those lines — but you're looking for that “happy valley.” Today, talented employees want to live where they have multiple employment options. So, companies have to fish where the fish are. I think that trying to attract an industry sector that has no relation to what you're already good at doing in your area is going to be frustrating for a community. So, I would say, look on the periphery of what industries you already have, particularly if you're blessed to have some good colleges, and postsecondary programs. What is going in in their sector? How can you tweak that to the next related field?

Business Strategy and Quality Labor
Just going to the low-cost labor location for most things today isn't going to solve your business strategy problem because we've automated the low-cost labor out of pretty much every process, particularly when it comes to manufacturing, or even information technology. Call centers are a great example. By the time a customer goes through all the automated menus, you need to have someone who really knows the product and the business and can help solve the problem. That person requires training, and they're going to grow, and they're going to get better at their job over time. You're not going to just abandon that employee because you can find someone for 50 cents an hour cheaper. So, I think that speaks to a lot of issues going on in the U.S. labor market today… the quality of the employee is so much more important than the cost, and if the job is worthwhile to the community, the marginal difference in the cost of labor is not going to matter as much as all the other factors.

When to Pay Up for Quality Labor and Communities
It makes sense to pay more for quality talent for certain industries. I think of biotech, because my son just graduated from college and he is in biotech, and he wants to think about “try living somewhere else” than Cambridge. I tell him there are five places in the country where he can do what he is trained to do. He can go to those places he hasn’t been, but the number-one biotech hub is Boston. He can go to San Francisco, San Diego, or Raleigh-Durham, and if he wants to go into pharmaceuticals, he can go to the New Jersey area, but that's about it, right? So, there's a difference between those professions that are needed in lots of places and you have a lot of labor mobility, and other careers where if you have an industry expertise, you're pretty limited as to where you can live. I mean, if you're a certain kind of financier, there are only three or four cities you could live in to really practice investment banking, for example. If you're a doctor, you have a lot more flexibility. If you're a good general manager, you have a lot more flexibility. If you're someone who does a certain kind of numerically controlled equipment, maybe you can go only where those industries are. Conversely, if you're a company and you want to do certain things, you got to go hire where those people are. They're not going to come to you.

Office Flexibility for Knowledge Workers — and Working Parents
I think people are still struggling with the question of when do you have to have people in the office and when can they work remotely? And where in their career path and life stage is the right time? So, the real estate folks are all saying, “Wow, this is great. We got ourselves down 100 square feet per person” by having flexible work, but what's really being lost? Or what's being gained? So, thinking about flexible work is about trying to understand the different place aspects of those different life stages and career stages. What is the actual work, where can it be done best, and by whom? That is why I really like to understand the current demographics of the workforce beyond just the occupational skills – how their labor force may change over time. For an older company, for example, how many people are going to be retirement eligible in 10 years? You need to try to understand the employee and potential workforce demographics and then match the real estate strategy to the demographics.

Where and how people work best will change throughout a lifetime. Take someone who is further on in his or her career…they could be a subject matter expert… but maybe they have kids at home. One parent needs to work close to home. I don't care if it's man or woman, but somebody — one parent can travel or commute a long distance. But one parent, unless they have a great support system, has to work near home. But that doesn't mean that person can't be in the workforce. So, there should be more flexibility around helping people to have thriving families and be members of thriving communities with their work. Still having their careers, still having their work, but doing it in a way that there's a “work-life balance.” I don't like that term because it really isn't about that. It is just, do people have enough flexibility that they can come up with the solution that works for their life? And is in their family’s best interest?

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