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Take 5: What Comes First, Talent or Business?

By: Paul Vachon

In the wake of Detroit’s failed bid to host Amazon’s second world headquarters, how much of a factor was Detroit’s talent pool? Many business leaders believe if Amazon came to Detroit, talent would follow. However, Amazon cited a lack of existing talent in Detroit as a key factor in being left off the final list.

So, which is it? Does talent follow business or does business invest in locations with an existing talent pool?

National economic experts say its both while also noting the importance of investing local infrastructure to retain homegrown talent and positively impact their quality of life. Urban expert Richard Florida of the University of Toronto correlates the linkage between areas with mass transit lines, quality educational facilities, and public green spaces with strong economic growth.

As the region’s leaders work together to position Detroit as a contender for the next major investment, here is what some leaders in education, economic development, city government and business had to say:

David DeMuth, CEO, Doner Company

“Attracting talent can’t wait. If you’re running a business which relies on talent, you must compete on a national basis. You need to attract talent from some of the nation’s greatest cities, like New York, Los Angeles or Chicago — as well as emerging places like Austin, Texas and Nashville, Tenn. We can’t wait for the infrastructure to be upgraded. We must outline a compelling opportunity to a candidate using the assts we already have to make the argument. Talent waits for no one.”

Dan Ngoyi, Director, Talent Acquisition, Quicken Loans Family of Companies

“I don’t think it’s a zero-sum game. One priority does not have to precede the other. After Quicken Loans first moved downtown, and after Detroit’s municipal bankruptcy, some infrastructure enhancements occurred. As more companies arrived, the resulting talent surge drove additional improvements, such as the QLine. So, the two priorities can certainly feed off each other, and develop simultaneously.

Justin Robinson, Vice President, Business Attraction, Detroit Regional Chamber

“The first piece is to understand what infrastructure assets we have now as a differentiator. This will allow for employers to make a strong business case to potential employees. But then the region does need to pause and address the issue of “placemaking,” which is fundamental to our long-term success. Most people still choose job over place, but our research suggests they’re pretty close as prospective workers weigh their options.

M. Roy Wilson, President, Wayne State University

“We have to approach the challenge of talent attraction and retention from all angles. Having said that, I do believe that we are losing potential talent to other cities with more advanced infrastructure. People are drawn to places for different reasons, and Southeast Michigan is attractive in many ways. The availability of excellent higher education opportunities and health care, a city in the midst of an impressive rebound, and outstanding cultural and other entertainment offerings are among the many attractions. Yet, without better infrastructure, particularly roads and public transit, it will become increasingly difficult to compete with locations such as Chicago, Boston, Denver and Pittsburgh — all places that have made substantial infrastructure investments in the recent past.”

“Certainly, some talent follows companies but more often, companies will follow talent. Studies by renowned economists have proven this theory. The unemployment rate is under 4 percent, which is extremely low; IT and engineering positions are below 2 percent. Clearly the talent pool in the United States is in a crisis. Michigan has some of the finest universities in the country but is being challenged with retaining talent. We are making strides to change this paradigm via the Marshall Plan for Talent and ChooseMichigan.org initiative.”

Ronia Kruse
President and CEO, OpTech

Jeff Donofrio, Director, Workforce Development, City of Detroit

“When a major company is looking at locating in Detroit, the first thing that they ask us about is the talent pool. This is why we are focused on building and developing the talent of Detroiters. Our goal is to increase the talent pool with our existing residents to advance our competitiveness in attracting new business investment.”

Paul Vachon is a metro Detroit freelance writer.