Chasing Opportunity in Cincinnati: Can Tri-State emerge as top talent magnet?

'We're becoming part of the choice set'
Posted at 6:00 AM, Jun 26, 2017
and last updated 2017-07-16 07:15:09-04

CINCINNATI - Rolando Archila is fluent in English, Spanish and German. He spent most of the last year traveling on five continents. That followed a seven-year consulting career in Cincinnati, where he helped Fortune 500 companies improve new product innovation.

It is no exaggeration to suggest that Archila could have taken his next big career step anywhere on the planet. But he didn’t choose Paris, New York or Buenos Aires. 

For the second time in eight years, he chose Cincinnati.

“There is a lot this city has to offer when it comes to starting a new business,” Archila said. “The community of entrepreneurs here is actually one of the best in the country. I think there’s access, education, people who are willing to invest in you. There are people who will inspire you and egg you on.”

Rolando Archila

Archila came back to Cincinnati to develop a new startup around the idea of social entrepreneurship. And that’s a win for the cluster of promotional groups that’s working hard to make this region a destination of choice for young professionals.

As unemployment declines and retiring baby boomers exit the workplace, regional economies will stall if they can’t attract young talent.

Cincinnati has always had magnets like Kroger Co., General Electric Co. and Procter & Gamble Co. For decades, these economic anchors have launched careers and sustained a community of vendors and consultants. But in the last decade, Cincinnati added a built-from-scratch startup scene, a rapidly developing urban core and a rising reputation for food, music, festivals and craft beer.

Kroger CEO Rodney McMullen said these changes are making a difference.

“Five or 10 years ago, when you tried to recruit somebody from a coast, they were skeptical,” McMullen said. “Now, you don’t have to sell them on the city. They’re excited about it because of the things they’ve heard about the city.”

Demographics are shifting in in the region’s favor. Hamilton County added nearly 14,000 residents between the ages of 25 and 40 in the five years ending in 2016, according to data compiled by EMSI, a Moscow, Idaho-based labor market research firm. That’s a big improvement from the five-year stretch ending in 2006, when Hamilton County lost nearly 19,000 residents in that age group.

“I think we are starting to appear on the radar of folks considering a move,” said Jordan Vogel, vice president of talent initiatives at the Cincinnati USA Regional Chamber of Commerce. “We’ve always had Fortune 500s. We have not always had a startup scene whose reputation proceeded itself. It attracts not only the spouse but the trailing significant other. There’s no doubt in my mind that we’re becoming part of the choice set. And I think it’s because there simply are more career opportunities here.”


Updating the legend of Cincinnati salmon

Has Cincinnati truly become a better place for chasing opportunity? WCPO spent the last three months exploring that question, interviewing nine young professionals and studying population trends.

Bottom line: This region still doesn’t come close to the drawing power of bigger cities like Boston, Chicago, Dallas and San Francisco. But there is some evidence of a surge in Cincinnati’s millennial population. We’re clearly benefiting from a relatively low cost of living, active cultural scene and job-hopping opportunities for skilled workers. In addition, several young professionals point to what could be a huge competitive advantage for Cincinnati: It’s a place that enables access to the high and mighty, a place where young leaders can influence government policy, corporate behavior and social change.

William Thomas II

“We have have a direct access to the mayor, to folks on city council, to a lot of the business leaders in Cincinnati and I think that’s hard to find in other cities,” said William Thomas II, founding partner of Mortar, an Over-the-Rhine nonprofit that helps low-income entrepreneurs start or expand their businesses.

Thomas grew up in Wyoming, but wasn’t planning to come back to Cincinnati after graduating from Wittenberg University. Neither was Tessa Xuan, who grew up and Mason and returned to work for P&G after graduating from Ohio State.

“It would be very difficult for me to do the same type of work with the same level of impact if I were in a bigger city,” said Xuan, who left P&G 18 months ago to become executive director of the Greater Cincinnati Chinese Chamber of Commerce.

Another ex-P&G employee from Texas launched a startup and landed a tech job after leaving Procter.

Amanda Gonzales Grossmann

“There’s a wealth of resources here,” said Amanda Gonzales Grossmann, analytics engineer for Blue Ash-based InfoTrust LLC. “I love participating in organizations like Girl Develop It and other things that are starting to brew. And I love that I can be a part of founding those things and really making an impact.”

It wasn’t always this way, said Vogel, a New York native and classical musician who launched two companies before joining the Cintrifuse startup enabler in 2013. He moved to the Chamber last July. When he first moved to town, a colleague explained to Vogel the concept of Cincinnati salmon: Our best and brightest leave town to start their careers, but often return when they’re ready to raise a family.

The underlying message is that Cincinnati isn’t cool enough for the young and restless. But Vogel said he thinks that view is changing, thanks to success of startup boosters such as the Brandery, Uptech, Ocean and X-Lab. A vibrant foodie culture has emerged, thanks to celebrity chefs like David Falk (Boca and Nada restaurants), Daniel Wright (Senate), Jean-Francois Flechet (Taste of Belgium) and the local godfather of the art form, Jean Robert de Cavel (Jean Robert’s Table and Le Bar a Boef among others). Cincinnati’s long-crowded festival calendar made room for more recent upstarts, such as the Bunbury, Music Festival in 2012 and music-inspired lighting spectacle Lumenocity in 2013. And then there is FC Cincinnati, which became a top contender for a Major League Soccer franchise in less than two years.

“When people come back who haven’t been here in a while, they simply can’t believe the transformation,” Vogel said. “From the Banks to OTR to a brand new soccer club to the explosion of the foodie scene, all the new breweries, the creative class and its ascent. The list goes on, right? And it’s all happening so quickly.”

Moving the needle on talent attraction

Vogel said these developments are crucial in the ever-widening fight for skilled labor. Tax breaks can even out cost differences between one region and another, but it’s tough to compete for a corporate headquarters if the whiz kids of finance, computer programming and engineering don’t want to live in your town.

Vogel said the chamber has made Cincinnati a stickier town for Millennials, with more than 40 networking and talent-development programs, including Cincy NEXT, C-Change, WE Lead and Cincinnati Intern Network Connection, or CINC.

Vogel describes the CINC program as “an immersion experience” that exposes college interns from Cincinnati, 28 states and 40 countries to Reds games, OTR nightlife and other regional attractions. In a 2016 analysis, the Chamber determined about half of the interns that participated in the program ended up starting their professional careers in Cincinnati. That's 348 people that could have left town but didn't in 2014 and 2015.

Inspired by those numbers, Vogel is developing a new immersion program called Hello Cincy. It’s one-day tutorial on the region that’s tailored to groups of new hires at specific companies.

“Going through programs that expose them to the area definitely helps move the needle,” he said.

What are the weirdest things about Cincinnati?

While that work continues, demographics data indicates Cincinnati still has room for improvement.

Local counties did not fare so well in a 2016 study by EMSI, an analytics firm that advises companies and economic-development agencies on the relative strengths of expansion sites. EMSI’s Talent Attraction Scorecard ranked 3,143 counties on their ability to lure skilled workers by comparing data on job growth, net migration, college enrollment and cost-of-living stats.

Travis County, Texas, home to the state capital of Austin, was the best performer, thanks to monster migration numbers and solid scores for job growth and the buying power of skilled workers.

The Tri-State’s best performer was Warren County, which ranked 72 out of 592 large counties, which EMSI defines as counties with at least 100,000 in population and 5,000 college students. Double-digit job growth enabled Warren and Boone counties to rank in the top 100 among large counties, but Hamilton, Butler and Clermont counties all ranked in the bottom third.

Hamilton, the region’s most populous county, “had pretty good growth in millennial population per capita,” said EMSI Marketing Director Josh Wright. “Overall college enrollment declined for distance learners. Jobs are growing there but not at an amazing clip.”

Wright said the growth of Hamilton County’s population under 40 is a strength, but it’s not clear that growth is coming from millennial migration.

WCPO examined Census Bureau migration data for all age groups between 2010 and 2014. Thirteen percent of those moving to Hamilton County came from another state. That’s a lower percentage than proven talent magnets like Boston’s Suffolk County, Nashville’s Davidson County and Mecklenburg County surrounding Charlotte, which are all above 20 percent.

Another sign of relatively weak drawing power is that Cincinnati ranks in the 30th percentile, below Columbus and Indianapolis, in the number of people from outside the region who looked at home listings on Zillow.

Cincinnati ranks 67th of 150 cities in Wallet Hub’s list of the best places to start a career.

Coneys, connections and pushing for change

Data aside, young professionals now chasing opportunity in Cincinnati said they believe the town has real drawing power.

Nia Baucke

“I was going to take the job in Chicago,” said Nia Baucke, director of external relations for the Hamilton County Clerk of Courts. The daughter of former NFL linebacker Jimmy Williams, Baucke received job offers in Chicago and Detroit after graduating with a history degree from Xavier University.

But Greg Landsman, former executive director of the Strive Partnership, sold her on Cincinnati by describing it as a town that’s willing to fight for change.

“He said that exact line, ‘Cincinnati is a fighting city,’” Baucke recalls. “I really do like the idea of being part of the change.”

Landsman was also a mentor to Mortar co-founder William Thomas II. Landsman, Thomas and Baucke all worked on the Cincinnati Preschool Promise campaign, which secured voter passage of a Cincinnati tax levy to fund preschool for all 3- and 4-year-olds in Cincinnati.

Thomas grew up in Wyoming and didn’t expect to return after graduating from Wittenberg University. But now that he’s back, he wears Cincinnati on his sleeve. Or at least on his finger, which sports a 513 (area code) tattoo. He claims to have convinced at least four former classmates to relocate to Cincinnati.

“That’s part of my life’s mission to get all the cool people (to move) here,” he said.  “I’m going to keep pounding the pavement until this whole city is filled with young professionals and great folks from across the country.”

Megan Belden

Connections matter to this group. Indianapolis native Megan Belden said her acclimation to Cincinnati was eased by a group 15 new hires at Nielsen who joined the company out of college and discovered the town together. For career guidance, Belden has a high-powered mentor: Fama Francisco, global president of Feminine Care products at P&G.

“She’s amazing,” Belden said. “I got really lucky getting paired with her” through the Williams College of Business at Xavier University.

Amanda Gonzales Grossmann also found words of encouragement at a P&G, where she interned while wrapping up her biological science degree from Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh.

“That gave me a taste of the city, what it would be like to work for the company. The people were amazing,” she said. “I really liked the way they seemed to care about me when I was making a choice for where I wanted to go out of school.”

She and her husband Matthew Grossmann were living in Los Angeles in 2008, but saw Cincinnati as “a good foundational move” because of its low cost of living and ample job opportunities.

Matthew Grossmann has worked for General Electric Co. since the couple relocated to Cincinnati. After seven years at P&G and before joining InfoTrust, Gonzales Grossmann spent two years in Cincinnati’s startup scene as CEO of Gamejoule, a sharing platform for board games. While she thinks startup community would benefit from having better access to venture capital, Gonzales Grossmann applauds Cintrifuse for establishing a regional home for entrepreneurial activity in Over-the-Rhine. That made it easier to navigate than “highly fragmented” startup towns like San Francisco and New York.

“It is easier to have an impact here because of that structure,” she said. “For a while, I was successful. It’s just that nine out of 10 startups don’t work out. So, I was just one of the nine.”

Tessa Xuan

Not everything is perfect in Cincinnati.

Many of these young professionals find the region lacking in diversity and inclusion.

“We’ve come a long way from back in the day but we still have a lot of work to do to make people who are not from here feel welcome,” said Tessa Xuan, who founded the region’s first and only group for Asian female professionals in Cincinnati and helped launch the Asian Food Fest in 2010.

Covington Economic Development Specialist Ross Patten sees a “growth opportunity” gap in the local job market. The Indianapolis native said several of his friends left town because they couldn’t find that career-advancing second job out of college.

Ross Patten

“We have a lot of great employers,” he said. “We have a lot of jobs that are available here. I just, I’m not sure if we’re retaining them.”

On a lighter note, the group has mixed views on Cincinnati traditions.

They don’t understand goetta or Cincinnati chili or why we put sweet sauce on LaRosa’s pizza and Montgomery Inn ribs. But they also see charm in Cincinnati oddities like Over-the-Rhine’s Bockfest and questions about where they went to high school.

Brett Santoferraro

“At the end of the day it’s a pretty small town,” said Brett Santoferraro, project leader at Amend Consulting. “People you wouldn’t expect to see on a Sunday night at the grocery store you’re running into. That gives a sense of being homey.”

Symmes Township native Paaras Parker “couldn’t wait to leave Cincinnati” as a teenager because she wanted more exposure to arts and culture than she thought her hometown could provide.

“Now the same things they I love about Cincinnati are the things that I thought I would never find here,” said Parker, head of talent for the digital marketing firm, 84.51.

Paaras Parker

“My career in Cincinnati has been amazing,” she said. “I worked for Victoria’s Secret. I worked for U.S. Bank. I worked for Global Lead. And most recently, prior to coming to 84.51, I worked with Macy’s corporate. And so just, I think my career is a great example of how many different things you can do here.”