To Keep Graduates, It Takes More Than Jobs

by Gabe Bullard

Last week, the Greater Louisville Project released its 2010 Competitive City Report. Among other things, the study highlights several areas where Louisville needs to improve in order to be more competitive for jobs. The first criterion listed is education. Thirty percent of working-age Louisvillians have a bachelor’s degree or higher, and the report says that’s a liability when it comes to attracting new jobs and businesses to the city.

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In mid-May, dozens of education, government and business leaders came together in the Muhammad Ali Center. They were celebrating a new effort to award 55 thousand associate’s or bachelor’s degrees in the next decade and increase Louisville’s percentage of working-age degree holders by ten percentage points.

After the event, Greater Louisville Inc. President Joe Reagan said without a more educated workforce, Louisville will lose potential jobs to cities like Cincinnati and Nashville.

“We’re here today because of the facts, because the facts show that we cannot compete with the type of education attainment we have today,” he says. “Those facts speak for themselves.”

This week at the University of Louisville, I spoke with library worker Andrew Huff. Huff is enrolled in graduate school, but he says his undergraduate degree hasn’t helped him in the local job market.

“I don’t know…maybe I’m not trying hard enough,” he says. “Back when I graduated in 2009 I applied for over 30 different jobs and I just couldn’t find one. No one really wanted to hire me.”

Huff says he didn’t expect the market for English majors to be very strong in the first place, and other students majoring in engineering, law-enforcement or nursing told me they expected to find work after graduation. But even as those fields grow, there will still be students like Huff who have degrees, but limited prospects in Louisville.

To attract businesses that would hire those graduates, Greater Louisville Project director Carolyn Gatz says there should be more students like Huff sticking around after school.

“The jobs don’t appear overnight,” she says. “The economic development people say you have to be able to tell an employer ‘Yes, we have an educated workforce,’ before they’ll even consider coming to your community.”

And if Louisville builds an educated population of people who are willing to work, Gatz says the job market will grow accordingly.

“As you improve education attainment—which we are doing, we just need to accelerate that—then you become a more likely candidate to attract those jobs, which is also something we’ve seen here in the last year or so,” says Gatz.

“I’m not smart enough to figure out what the either/or is between those two things,” says Bob Morgan, president of the Charlotte, North Carolina Chamber of Commerce. “Frankly, you probably need both and we’re very fortunate to have both going for us at the moment.”

Charlotte ranks above Louisville in education attainment and in higher wage technical and professional jobs. Morgan says twenty years ago, Charlotte was struggling, but then the universities expanded their research programs, more citizens earned degrees and the jobs started coming. But there was more to it than just that.

“We’ve been about building Charlotte into the type of place that’s going to attract jobs and that’s going to attract people—they go hand in hand,” says Morgan.

Morgan says in addition to an educated workforce and tax incentives for businesses, Charlotte’s professional sports, support for the arts, climate and improved public transportation helped keep graduates in town while also helping recruit companies that would hire those graduates.

“You need to be able to offer those workers what they might be giving up if they come from other, larger markets,” he says.

The Competitive City Report also addresses Louisville’s “Quality of Place.” It’s an assessment of the city’s liveability, based on criteria like safety, traffic congestion and housing prices. Louisville’s research institutions are growing, but without improvements in those liveability areas, the report says the city will likely still struggle to attract new workers who want more than a job.