WSJ: Portland continues to attract talent, despite stumbling economy

As if we needed another sign of the opportunity and potential we have within our grasp here in the Silicon Forest, the Wall Street Journal has just published a piece on Portland and its ability to attract young educated people—even though they might not have jobs waiting for them.

What will come as little shock to any of us—but seems to be confounding the WSJ—is that any number of people are attracted to Portland for way of life, first and foremost. Even though joining the ranks of those in Portland may also mean joining the ranks of the under-employed or completely unemployed.

This drizzly city along the Willamette River has for years been among the most popular urban magnets for college graduates looking to start their careers in a small city of like-minded folks. Now the jobs are drying up, but the people are still coming. The influx of new residents is part of the reason the unemployment rate in the Portland metropolitan area has more than doubled to 11.8% over the past year, and is now above the national average of 8.9%.

The beautiful if not morose photography by Sean Flanigan which accompanies the piece just serves to drive that point home.

Unfortunately, this is leaving us with a glut of young and well-educated talent sitting on the bench. That’s a problem. And it’s yet another opportunity for Portland to take the lead in solving the issue.

Portland has attracted college-educated, single people between the ages of 25 and 39 at a higher rate than most other cities in the country. Between 1995 and 2000, the city added 268 people in that demographic group for every 1,000 of the same group living there in 1995, according to the Census Bureau. Only four other metropolitan areas had a higher ratio. The author of the Census report on these “youth magnet” cities, Rachel Franklin, now deputy director the Association of American Geographers, says the Portland area’s critical mass of young professionals means it has a “sustained attractiveness” for other young people looking for a place to settle down.

Portland continues to sit on its two-legged stool: lots of ideas and lots of talent to bring those ideas to fruition. What remains—and the third leg we desperately need—is a means of funding startup pursuits in a way that works for both those providing the capital and those requiring access to it.

Here’s hoping we can find that solution sooner rather than later.

(Image courtesy jasonatennui. Used under creative commons.)

  1. @Marcus – You’re hitting on a BIG BIG truth. The corporate base in a city allows for the rise of creative services companies and other businesses that serve the local big guys.

    I keep hearing from people here that their clients are in other, far away, places. And that’s also true for me. If I didn’t have connections in Omaha, Kansas City, Chicago, Denver, Salt Lake City, San Francisco and elsewhere it would be that much tougher to make it here.

  2. Portland has always been interesting to me in the way the economy works here. The main thing Portland is lacking is large companies that have enough bank to employ the masses. Yes startups are cool however, the average startup is usually paying their employees with someone else’s money. Nothing wrong with that but, it doesn’t build the foundation for a long term foundation for the job market. Standard insurance is the only company in the city of Portland that has the kind of bank $$$ I’m talking about. Get about 5-10 more standard’s and you might got a playing field to work with!

  3. @Sean Canton – Love your commentary about W+K’s Pearl-lined gate keeping. It’s a tension I’ve been exposed to for some time. Clearly, Wieden can’t employ ALL the talented marcom people in Portland. But they CAN treat said group of citizens with respect. Sadly, I don’t believe that’s ever been the case. Maybe once upon a time, but in my own experience, I know it hasn’t happened. Yet, I’ve continued to be interested in them over the years and I’ve certainly given them a boatload of positive coverage on AdPulp. So be it. I have to say, today, I’m much more interested in what’s happening at the fringe in this city. That’s where I exist and where other people with all the talent they’ll ever need exist. She who harnesses this renewable resource will, no doubt, do quite well.

  4. However, upon closer scrutiny, most disturbing about this article is Sam Adams attitude:

    “I’m hopeful people will stick around,” says Portland mayor Sam Adams. “Even if they come to my city without a job, it is still an economic plus.”

    Yea, it’s no skin off your back if people don’t have work, as long as the numbers add up. Wanna be employees, just dump your life savings into an economy that doesn’t give back, despite the claims you see everywhere that a dollar spent into the local economy gets circulated 3-6 times. Then if you don’t ‘stick around’, well, hard luck!

    I apologize if I’m going a little off on this subject, but it’s absolutely infuriating. I moved here in early 2007 from a beautiful tiny rural college town in California, looking for opportunity. It took me 9 months to land solid work, which I lost due to ‘the economy’ 9 months later, 5 months pass and I find another job, where I create and earn less then I did in the tiny rural town 2.5 years ago!

    So much for opportunity!

  5. “sustained attractiveness” – shiny on the outside, rusted and almost broken on the inside. count me as one of the gratefully underemployed.

    I think a solution is for the major creative players in the Portland market, W+K, Nike, Intel to reach into the talent pool, cultivate and simmer low-cost projects. This would have two major benefits, for cash-strapped companies, and eager underemployees. Companies get an influx of fresh ideas, for next to nothing, compared to the cost of hiring an agency. Brand name work is a creative’s shining trophy and paves the way for greater things.

    However, as long as Nike + Intel use recruiters as gatekeepers and W+K remains in their insular Pearl castle, churning out something pretty for us all to drool over every once in a while, this won’t happen.

    Nothing changes until necessary, and it’s fairly clear that the large institutions are more interested in shedding jobs as the easiest, least-mind intensive, non-partner-salary-hurting solution to our economic situation.

  6. Carolynn Duncan said a similar thing to me. She said one thing we lack is mentorship from business leaders that have been through the funding process before start to finish. We need an experienced group starting companies that we can all learn from to start the next generation of start ups.

  7. My theory: Money follows proven talent. Instead of recruiting companies to move here, providing relocation incentives and tax breaks, we should provide those same rewards to proven company founders and entrepreneurs. We should also work hard to keep those same people here (although our quality of life does a pretty good job of that!) VC’s like Voyager seem to be seeing the future and I think others will too. Those in economic development positions need to start thinking small. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for a few more large employers, but if we want to have the kind of economic engine the Bay Area has, small is the new big.

  8. When @DavyStevenson and I read bits of this unusually grim article yesterday afternoon, it inspired her to think of ways to best use all these bench talents. Contributing to an open source project or extending ones written locally (Open Conference Ware and Calagator comes to mind) could be a good avenue for them to get good experience, and good things to put in their resume.

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