A Map to Houston’s World-Class Future (part 2 of 2)Continuing from part 1 last week:
So what tactical improvements can Houston make to keep its talent pipeline full with young professionals?
It starts with “growing our own.” The easiest young professionals to attract are ones that grow up here, but we have to transform them into educated professionals first. That starts with excellent primary and secondary education. Unfortunately, our current system seems to only work for about a third of students, getting them through high school and on to college. We need a radical flowering of public and private entrepreneurial innovation to create new schools (or new schools within existing schools) - both curriculum and culture - that really work for the other two-thirds of kids. Too much of today’s high school doesn’t feel relevant to kids, so they drop out. Or they squeak by, but fail to go on to college, or don’t have the skills to succeed once they do go to college. Some are “saved” later by a GED and the community college system, but wouldn’t it be far better to offer them a compelling high school experience now (especially in science and math), rather than picking up the pieces later? This is, by far, Houston’s greatest challenge.
The first “mobility decision point” for most people is after high school: how do we attract outsiders – and locals – to college here? It’s about offering quality choices. Rice is excellent, but needs to grow larger (and is). UH needs Tier 1 status like UT and A&M, with state funding to match. We need stronger programs to attract top-tier international students, who are less worried about a “cool college town” than a good education at a good price in a city with a support network of others of their ethnicity/nationality/language/culture – a strength of Houston’s global diversity and 82 foreign consulates. In general, Houston must make every effort to continuously improve, support, and upgrade all our local colleges and universities. They will provide the critical foundation of our talent base.
The second decision point is after college. The first group to attract are our own native sons and daughters that have gone to school elsewhere. If they remember positive experiences growing up here, they’re likely to want to come back. As children, that can mean easily accessible parks with healthy clean air where many hours are spent with friends and family or playing sports. As teens, many know only the “boring family-oriented suburbs” of Houston, and feel little reason to return. With development of a light rail network in our core plus some dense transit and pedestrian-oriented districts, including entertainment and nightlife, we will have more compelling Houston experiences to offer our teens, and those experiences will help to draw them back in their twenties. Those districts will also help to draw the second group of college grads that did not grow up here. Delayed marriage has given rise to a new, large demographic of childless professionals – also known as the “creative class” – that are looking for vibrant pedestrian and transit-oriented mixed-use districts where they can mingle with other young professionals at retail, restaurants, and nightlife. They also look seriously at issues like quality of life, parks, open space, and clean air. They usually have to become thirty or forty-somethings before they appreciate the true value of an affordable house with a reasonable commute – a great Houston strength.
A vibrant entrepreneurial climate also helps attract young professionals. Here, we have great assets in the Houston Technology Center, BioHouston, the Rice Alliance for Technology and Entrepreneurship, and similar organizations, but Houston would be helped significantly by the injection of more local venture capital. A great way to do this would be for local employers to offer it as an investment option in their 401(k) plans.
Finally, Houston needs to upgrade its tourism experience. All great, world-class cities offer a compelling tourism experience, even if only for a short trip. Even with NASA, the Galleria, and solid museum and theater districts, this has been one of Houston’s most glaring weaknesses, and one that has kept us off the radar for educated, well-traveled professionals. Again, the light rail network and some vibrant pedestrian districts will help greatly, but we really need one powerful, anchor “mega-attraction” that will actually draw people to Houston for at least a long weekend. One niche where I think Houston could be distinctive would be the world’s largest engineering and technology museum – something along the lines of DC’s National Air & Space Museum, Munich’s Deutsches Museum, and Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry. It could even be one of the Smithsonian’s network of National Museums, which have started to move out beyond Washington DC (Design in NYC, Industrial History planned for Pittsburgh). Think of it as Houston’s version of Paris’ Louvre or London’s British Museum. The combination with Space Center Houston could create a national draw, not to mention a wonderful source of educational and career inspiration for our youth. As far as sites, 109 acres just became available at the end of the light rail line with the closing of Astroworld – not to mention the old Astrodome - both easily accessible to downtown and Reliant Park conventioneers. Any well-heeled philanthropists out there?
To sum up, the challenges separating Houston from top-tier world-class status are substantial but certainly achievable with the right focus and resources: innovative schools that truly leave no child behind, upgraded universities, plenty of parks and open space, youth-oriented pedestrian and transit districts, quality of life and clean air improvements, increased venture capital, and a more compelling tourism experience – maybe with a few aesthetic tweaks thrown in (landscaping, signs, etc.) – all while working hard to preserve and grow our existing foundation of strengths and amenities. How about it, Houston?