State Needs Young Professionals; They Want Cool Digs

By DAVID FINK | The Hartford CourantApril 10, 2012

The nation’s state-against-state competition for young professionals has been called “America’s Third Civil War” by noted Northeastern University Professor Barry Bluestone.

Hyperbole? Unlikely.

Google “young professionals” — the skilled, educated 25- to 34-year-old labor pool so crucial to building businesses and communities — and it’s apparent Bluestone isn’t far off: From North Dakota to South Carolina, everyone is working hard to lure them. And whether they have well-anchored magnets — the Red Sox, Soho, high-tech employers — or innovative additions like Birmingham’s “Bottletree” indie rock club, they are succeeding.

Why lure them? Most states and cities don’t have enough. And in Connecticut’s case, the situation is worse and the stakes higher.

The problem is stark: Connecticut has lost a higher percentage of its 25- to 34-year-old population since 1990 than any state but Maine and New Hampshire. Since 2000, the situation has gotten a bit better: We are seventh.

That means too few skilled workers to lure innovative companies, too few volunteers for municipal boards, too few creative new ideas and less vitality for our communities, and too few customers for our merchants. As Michael Pace, the former Old Saybrook frst selectman used to say, “Show me a community with no youth, and I’ll show you a community with no future.”

Our problem is understandable. Connecticut has Boston to the north, New York City to the south and, at least until now, few of the job opportunities, affordable housing options and cool places that Denver, Atlanta, Seattle, Raleigh, Charlotte and other recent magnets provide for young professionals.

Connecticut has been near the cellar in job creation. It is 47th in housing production since 2000 and what we’ve built — large colonials and 55-plus luxury housing — has included none of the affordable rentals, townhouses and starter homes that young professionals need. We’ve been slow to develop mass transit or cool places that have developed around transit stations from Portland to D.C.

Fortunately, state officials are focusing on the links among housing, transit, the arts and jobs. Among them is Department of Economic and Community Development Deputy Commissioner Kip Bergstrom — who helped then-Mayor Dannel P. Malloyrestore downtown Stamford‘s housing, recreation, transportation and employment offerings. Bergstrom’s boss, Commissioner Catherine Smith, has hired a deputy for housing policy and meets with Transportation Commissioner Jim Redeker and Environmental Commissioner Dan Esty regularly to coordinate strategy.

Redeker, one of the principal architects of New Jersey’s Transit Village Program, understands how stops along MetroNorth, Shoreline East, the forthcoming Springfield-New Haven commuter rail and the Hartford-New BritainBusway can provide much of what young professionals, workers and families need.

Why? Because the world changed with the Great Recession.

The average 25- to 34-year-old owes $25,300 in college debt. That makes a mortgage loan harder to get, a 15 percent to 20 percent down payment (what many lenders require) harder to scrape together and a car tougher to afford. Add it up and they need affordable rentals — near mass transit, shopping, recreation and others their age. They don’t want a 3,000-square-foot suburban colonial.

Human resource professionals say they also need, besides a decent salary and career potential, a work culture shaped as much to them as 60-ish baby boomers.

How to get it done?

Gov. Malloy is providing the bones. His huge investments in transit, housing and job creation will provide a structure and the kind of homes young professionals can afford in the places they like.

But it’s clear that the state will have to help the cities and towns develop transit stops to meet their specific needs and those of the residents they wish to attract.

Our economy will depend on new ideas, skills and shoppers. Government revenues will depend on a bigger tax base, not higher rates. Baby-boomer couples won’t retire comfortably unless young couples are around to buy their homes. There’s no Little League without coaches, and no volunteer fire departments without volunteers.

The competition is on. America’s Third Civil War? Probably.

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