Sunday, March 10, 2013

Attracting more educated talent to Houston

As the Greater Houston Partnership develops Opportunity Houston v2.0, I hear more and more that Houston needs to not just attract jobs, but also well-educated talent to fill all those jobs.  Don't get me wrong - as Joel Kotkin has pointed out, plenty of college grads are moving to Houston - but even that flow is having trouble keeping up with the massive numbers of jobs we're creating.  Although Houston's image has been improving with more and more national accolades, we're still not an obvious "go-to" destination for talent (like, say, Austin), especially recent college grads outside of Texas.  I'm not sure any general image/advertising campaign can fix that, but I do think a targeted approach with a modest budget has a lot of potential.

Step 1: Identify target universities with graduates and alums we want.  It's really hard to pry people out of the coasts, but I think Midwestern and Southern graduates are more likely to consider Houston.  I'd guess the best yield will be mostly from Big 10, Big 12, and SEC schools with strong engineering programs, plus a few high-quality extras like Tulane, Duke, Emory, Georgia Tech, U.Va, and Washington University in St. Louis.

Step 2: Help organize/support/sponsor alumni groups from those schools in Houston.  Help them create social media communities and networking events, especially around sports bar meetups for their school's games.

Step 3: Sponsor a big Houston tent at the annual homecoming football games for those schools.  In addition to the usual food, beer, and marketing materials, make sure it has plenty of Houston-based alums at it to talk up both the city and their alumni community here.  The message is "Your school has a vibrant alumni community in Houston that you will be welcomed into, and they love living in Houston."  This is a double win because the message gets out to both alums and students.  Also consider ads and articles in alumni magazines.

Step 4: Here's the clincher.  The idea came from a story my Dad told me about northern college students driving down here for spring break mixing service at Habitat with Humanity with some fun.  Evidently they really enjoyed Houston.  The more I thought about it, the more I realized Houston has to offer for college students on spring break: reasonable driving distance (at least for a groups trading off driving shifts), great weather, beaches/Kemah/Pleasure Pier/Schlitterbahn, the Rodeo, NASA, arts/theater/museums, and of course tons of restaurants, bars, shopping, and nightlife.  I've heard and read multiple anecdotes that today's college students are looking for more than just "get drunk on a beach for a week."  They like the excitement and sophistication of a big city.  They'd like to do a service project.  Houston could offer an amazing spring break experience, and we can certainly handle the crowds far better than the small beach communities of Florida and with fewer drug violence concerns than Mexico.  And if they want to mix in a little SXSW time in Austin or South Padre beach time during their week, that's fine too.  The goal is to get them at least some exposure to all Houston has to offer, so when they're interviewing for jobs their senior year, we're an attractive option... "Man, I had a blast on spring break in Houston - I could definitely see myself taking a job and living there."

Of course we'd want to try and schedule a slate of events, including concerts and festivals, during these spring break weeks.  And offer an array of service projects like Habitat for Humanity and others.  We'd also want to have private events where the students can meet their local alumni group - for example, Houston-based Purdue alumni hosting Purdue students on spring break for an event at the Natural Science or Fine Arts museums.  Finally, of course, we have to promote Spring Break Houston on their campuses.

Again, another double win, attracting both talent and tourism dollars.  And when you consider the secondary value of all those college students talking up their Spring Break Houston trip on their social media accounts, it's really a triple win.

So that's my 4-step plan for attracting more college-educated talent to Houston with a modest marketing budget.  I'm looking forward to your thoughts in the comments...

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At 10:58 PM, March 11, 2013, Anonymous awp said...

How confident are you that the marginal benefit of the higher taxes to fund your campaign to lure college educated workers will be higher than the marginal cost of the taxes in terms of the low tax climate that lures those jobs for college educated workers to Houston in the first place, and makes Houston such an affordable place for those workers to live after they take the job. I believe having the jobs will be incentive enough on its own.

At 11:04 PM, March 11, 2013, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

No taxes. Marketing program by the GHP - private organization.

At 12:10 AM, March 12, 2013, Blogger Michael said...

I'm not opposed to the Spring Break idea although I'd want to be sure we are trying to attract college-educated workers and not just hipsters. Among the festivals and concerts you envision perhaps a huge job fair at the George R Brown or Reliant could be timed to coincide / overlap a couple of weeks of Spring Break.

As far as just attracting more people, if the Rodeo could be lengthened to say 25 days and you threw in 3-4 more days of something popular with college kids - or just mainstream as opposed to country - I think that could help lure people to town for some major concerts. Let the Free Press Summerfest organizers help come up with some names + 74k guaranteed seats sold. Imagine having a week of superstars like Beyonce / U2 / Radiohead / The Rolling Stones etc. during Spring Break, at the rodeo. Reserve some seats for the alumni groups etc. Guess this is not something the GHP can do by itself, but I think it is a good idea for the rodeo and for Houston. (Or just have another event like Free Press Summerfest during Spring Break with smaller acts).

At 8:05 AM, March 12, 2013, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Love the ideas, Michael. Job fair is brilliant. Since spring break happens on different weeks for different schools, what would be great is if the rodeo did one "mainstream" night in the middle of each week aimed at college students. Super big names would be great, but might swamp the place with locals. Maybe bands better known in college circles but not mainstream would be better? A big DJ rave or two would be good too, although maybe not at the Rodeo.

At 12:54 PM, March 12, 2013, Anonymous awp said...

The resources are still coming from somewhere.

So replace higher taxes with higher membership fees, and low tax climate with low cost climate.

At 1:15 PM, March 12, 2013, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

I don't think it comes out of their usual membership fee budget. I think they do philanthropic fund raising.

At 1:31 PM, March 12, 2013, Anonymous awp said...

And that philanthropic money was not going to be spent on anything else? Maybe something that made residents lives better, which would be an even better advertisement for Houston?

How many tens of thousands/graduate attracted do you think your plan will cost? And will that cost be worth it in terms of whatever else those resources could have been used on locally?

At 1:41 PM, March 12, 2013, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

I guess a better way to think of it is that the GHP is going to spend that money on marketing Houston anyway. I'm proposing what I think will yield the best bang for their buck.

At 11:44 PM, March 13, 2013, Blogger Unknown said...

I do a ton of work in executive management, including recruiting and I am actually originally from the Midwest.

I think this is a brilliant idea, especially the alumni connection and targeting relationships with graduates. Brilliant.

At 8:27 AM, March 14, 2013, Blogger Tory Gattis said...


At 2:56 PM, July 10, 2013, Anonymous Jeff said...

The clincher idea is idealistic but not realistic; you mentioned SXSW; that's definitely a bigger draw to visit Austin! Not sure NASA is big enough of a draw, though I do think the Rodeo is intriguing at least for one day! It is in an interesting thought though; I haven't heard much of people coming to Houston to do service projects such as in the context of a Spring Break service project or even during other school breaks. Perhaps adding in a football game would help.. but there's not much more to draw in my opinion. Free Press timed with the service project earlier in the week could work.

Realistically, if the demand for skilled recent college graduates is there, which I believe it is right now in Houston, then there isn't necessarily a need for the college Spring Break service project idea, though the other actionable items would be great structural initiatives to implement in cases in which they are not already in place/established.

At 3:00 PM, July 10, 2013, Anonymous Jeff said...

It's interesting to think about having more service projects in Houston. I don't think the items you listed as draws for coming to Houston would be very appealing, especially when mentioning SXSW, definitely go to Austin instead! I think the Rodeo is a draw, and I agree that maybe structuring a project prior to Free Press weekend would make sense. The other ideas are great, though, if not already implemented. Realistically, there should be strong demand for college-educated recent graduates in Houston, so there isn't necessarily a need for particularly the spring break idea with this end goal in mind; I do think more service projects for students during school breaks in Houston would be great!


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