St. Louis is in bad shape. And it's getting worse. I don't think that is news to anyone. At least here in St. Louis. We're notorious for complaining about the city to each other. There is a defeatist type mentality at networking events and elsewhere that permeates just below the surface. That's not to say everyone does. I've had plenty of conversations with people who want to change that. But they all run out of steam at some point.
But when we talk to other people from other cities, we put on a stiff upper lip and talk about how great our city is. The zoo, the great place to raise a family, the "low" cost of living (in some places), etc. In short… we're doing fine, thank you for asking, now move along. I guess call it a pride thing.
So what happens? People do move right along. They see us as an insulated little city that seems to do fine amongst ourselves. And I see this in so many other areas of business as well. We take bad news and craft it into good news somehow so as not to worry anyone. We put up a facade that masks the problem. Only to let the problem grow. Remember the Mac vs. PC ad with the PR lady? "By downgrading, he means upgrading to a more familiar stable platform."
We've seen articles in the Post Dispatch for a long time about how our region's economy has barely grown in over ten years including one just this morning. But a recent conversation I had with a college senior really hit home to me how deep this problem really goes. It was a simple statement at the time:
"None of my graduating class from high school have any plans for coming back to St. Louis after college."
What made it so profound for me, why i milled on it a lot overnight and wanted to write this blog post the next morning was that the school was MICDS. For those that don't know MICDS (you're probably outside of St. Louis reading this if you don't), but it is one of the premier college prep schools in the city. Highly renowned, and the majority of the more prominent and influential families send their kids there.
Why is this important? Well, let's break down one of St. Louis' biggest problems: creating, attracting, and retaining skilled workers. We know that manufacturing has taken a hit in St. Louis, but so has the professional and business services category (law firms, architects, ad agencies, and more) falling 14% just last year. Your first line of defense on retaining workers is keeping the ones you educate here to stay here. And considering a lot of MICDS families are partners in those professional and business services firms, owners of businesses in St. Louis, and generally working in areas that help St. Louis as an economic base, you'd think their kids would come back after college, use those connections here in St. Louis and build from that.
And in the past, they have. A lot of our business leaders today went to that school. But when the majority of the most recent graduating classes vows to not come back, something is wrong. Now, think about the other smart, talented, skilled kids graduating from other schools that don't have as many connections as the MICDS graduates. Think they have a chance in hell? Those graduates make a decision around a year before graduating college: a) family is important to me, so I will severely limit my career potential to go home and live a comfortable life in St. Louis, or b) pursue their career to the fullest in another city with the thought they may one day come back to family in St. Louis after they have "made it."
Here is what made the conversation with that senior so enlightening and led me to think of a new strategy. This statement he made was in the middle of explaining why HE was coming back to St. Louis (the only in his circle of friends). In short, he felt he owed it to the city he grew up in. He felt a duty, a calling (not to get too cheesy here), but at his young age, he understood the seriousness of the situation and wanted to do something about it. His plan is simple right now: to stop being a statistic and to lead by example. But I know in further talks with him, he'll do more. And I'm glad he is (and will). I'm going to do everything I can do to help him.
He gave me an idea I want to throw out here to see if it might help turn the tide here in St. Louis. Well, an idea I'll do in another blog post. This one is getting a bit long.