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How Our Talent Competes Globally

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Posted by: Jeff Rea
President and CEO
St. Joseph County Chamber of Commerce on Wednesday, November 25, 2015 at 12:00:00 am

Over the years I’ve been curious as to how people found their way to the South Bend Region. Most came from other places in search of an employment opportunity. Companies such as Studebaker, Uniroyal, Oliver and Dodge sought skilled labor to man their factories and promised a better quality of life for those who were interested.

I’ve heard many a story of immigrants arriving at Ellis Island and boarding a train that would bring them west to a new opportunity and a new life. We were historically a hotbed for talent attraction. A robust economy attracted immigrants from virtually every corner of the globe. Those immigrants ultimately planted roots here and many stayed and found regular and gainful employment for decades to follow. Their families followed suit.

But now, times have changed. Advances in technology mean fewer people are working in many of our legacy industries. People have left our area seeking employment elsewhere. Companies are now able to do business from anywhere in the world. People have become more mobile. The competition for top talent is stiffer than it’s ever been and to grow our local economy, winning that battle will be critical.

Indiana leaders have recognized the need to develop, attract and retain that top talent and that is an important element of the Indiana Regional Cities Program. Bold, creative and transformational ideas are essential to attract that next generation of talent. Our communities need to stand out and have some “wow” factor and they need to offer the types of amenities that attract the next generation of worker.

Our area has worked for more than a year on a plan that includes key projects in St. Joseph, Elkhart and Marshall counties and is aimed to help attract that talent. Our peers in six other parts of Indiana have taken similar action. Our plan has been well received by business leaders across the state and by mid-December, we’ll know whether state funding will be available to help jump-start key area projects.

An important part of our regional strategy relates to the more than 40,000 students enrolled in undergraduate programs at our local colleges and universities in our region. Retaining some of those students in our region is critical to our future economic growth.

Experts are telling us that quality of life and availability of talent will be the two most critical drivers for economic success. Sound a little familiar? My guess is that if we were to do like Marty McFly in “Back to the Future” and hop in Doc Brown’s DeLorean to travel back in time, the Studebaker brothers might tell us a similar tale. For a while, companies like Studebaker and communities like the South Bend region won the battle for talent and were able to grow into one of the top automakers in the world.

But in recent years, we’ve lost more top young people than we’ve won. Young people instead have been attracted to bigger cities, which offer a wider variety of services, more entertainment options, more recreational opportunities, more opportunities for social interaction, and conveniences not often offered in smaller areas. And those young people need jobs.

Leaders in our area understand this and have worked to create and enhance spaces that are cool and unique. Young people are beginning to experience more of this and have been instrumental in helping create some of those spaces. Now we must unleash those young ambassadors to sell the merits of our region to their friends, classmates and social networks.

The work is just beginning. Together, our region can once again be a hotbed for talent attraction.

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