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Attracting Youth: A Looming Worker Shortage Pushes the Quad Cities to Start Looking Beyond Amenities PDF Print E-mail
News/Features - Feature Stories
Written by Marguerite Day   
Wednesday, 24 September 2008 02:35

Reader issue #703 With an imminent worker shortage, the Quad Cities are faced with the need to keep and attract young people.

Despite thousands of jobs becoming available in the coming years and significant improvements in the number and variety of amenities in the Quad Cities over the past decade, leaders are faced with a deep-rooted problem: perception.

Although it's easy to offer dozens of examples to dispute the claim, many young people share the sentiment of Alex Williams, a Black Hawk College student who lived in Houston before moving to the Quad Cities: "It's just kind of dead. There's not much stuff to do, ... any events." He also said that available events don't appeal to him.

Paul Rumler, the vice president of the Illinois Quad City Chamber of Commerce who leads that organization's efforts to attract and retain workers, said there's a strong relationship between how high-school and college students perceive the Quad Cities and whether they remain in the area after they graduate. And that means the area has a perception problem, because the Quad Cities have had difficulty attracting and retaining young workers for a long time, he said.

The area might be making some headway on that front. While the populations of Scott and Rock Island counties increased by just 0.6 percent between 2000 and 2007, according to U.S. Census Bureau estimates, the number of people aged 25 to 29 grew 2.2 percent. In Rock Island County, that age group jumped by 21 percent over that period, while it dropped 14 percent in Scott County.

Worker attraction and retention - particularly college graduates - is an issue of increasing urgency in the Quad Cities. An August 2007 study by the Illinois Quad City Chamber of Commerce found that by 2014, almost 51,000 people will be eligible for retirement, Rumler said. Of those 51,000 jobs, 53 percent require an education beyond high school.

And the problem isn't the number of bodies. The Illinois Quad City Chamber found that 162,000 people in a 90-mile radius will be graduating with a bachelor's, associate's, technical, master's, or doctoral degree by 2014.

Yet local college students remain an untapped resource, Rumler said. In recent years, the Illinois Quad City Chamber has targeted young professionals, but not recent college graduates, he said.

Rumler said the chamber is developing a new strategy for what it's tentatively calling its Emerging Professionals Network (EPN), which is geared toward college students. EPN started with a structure similar to the chamber's Young Professionals Network (YPN), a group for workers younger than 40 that provides professional and networking events along with social opportunities such as a book club, a culture club, a wine club, and volleyball leagues. Since merging with neXt (a similar group that was part of DavenportOne), YPN has grown to more than 2,300 members.

After holding a few events at local college career fairs and not getting the turnout the chamber anticipated, Rumler said his organization is taking a different approach to EPN. Past events included a panel of professionals talking about how to succeed at a career fair and networking sessions in junction with a YPN event.

The new strategy for EPN "will be a resource for college students - for them to use on their own time," Rumler said. Although he wouldn't go into details, he said the network will provide career-resource and career-awareness information, showing what career opportunities and internships are available in the Quad Cities.

"College students are a hard target for us to reach," said Kristin Burke, marketing and events coordinator for the Illinois Quad City Chamber and the director of YPN.

She said that although a new EPN strategy has not been finalized, it will involve monthly employer tours for college students, an opportunity for them to literally "get their foot in the door." A trial run earlier this year with Quad City Bank & Trust reached the maximum 25 participants, and tours of KJWW, Mel Foster, and Modern Woodmen are scheduled for September, October, and November, respectively.


Jobs and Amenities

The emphasis on connecting young people with employment opportunities complements efforts throughout the Quad Cities over the past decade to build a base of amenities that young people will find attractive.

College students want to go "where jobs are, where money's at, where housing's at," said Amber Bruser, a student at Black Hawk College.

Andrew Messerschmidt, an Augustana student, said, "I really just don't want to live here because I've tried to get a job and internships here, and that just hasn't happened for me."

"Maybe if they had more businesses like John Deere that really offer a lot of jobs for people with business degrees that we're going to have eventually," said Tim Deets, a student at Augustana."I think that would go a long way to keep more people here."

An internal survey of college students by the Illinois Quad City Chamber of Commerce in 2007 revealed that "it's the perceptions of where the jobs are that are driving people's decisions on where to live," Rumler said. "They [college graduates] will rule out entire areas based on the perception of whether or not opportunities exist."

The good news is that perceptions of the Quad Cities are generally good, he said. The survey revealed that students from the Quad Cities, from Downstate Illinois, and from outside Illinois perceived the Quad Cities positively. Only students from the Chicago area viewed the Quad Cities negatively, he said.

Sarah Madalinski, a 2007 Augustana graduate who now works as the marketing coordinator for the i wireless Center, said she remained in the Quad Cities because she got a job there. Her experience suggests that both jobs and social opportunities are critical.

"I had been interning here at the i wireless Center for the two years prior, as well," she wrote in an e-mail, "so that ... helped me feel more connected to the area. I was hesitant, however, with all of my friends moving back to the Chicago area and my family living in the suburbs. I wasn't sure if this place would ever really feel like home. ... [But] after three months of living here, I fell completely in love with the place! It seemed like every week there was another outdoor festival, concert, or sporting event to attend. The low cost of living here also makes it so that I can do all those things, and really not have to be too concerned with my budget. ... So I guess you could say the job got me here, but discovering that this area has all the benefits of a big city (concerts, festivals, sporting teams, museums, parks - you name it) at small town prices made it a perfect fit for someone like me who is just starting out."

The recent focus on amenities is rooted in the idea, popularized by Richard Florida in his 2002 book The Rise of the Creative Class, that young professionals often choose a place to live before they find a place to work. He conducted a study in 2001 on the location decisions of young professionals in technology-based industries. The study found that the "quality-of-place - particularly natural, recreational, and lifestyle amenities - is absolutely vital in attracting knowledge workers." It found a correlation between regions with a large number of "knowledge workers" and those with plentiful amenities.

That study as well as the experiences of YPN have shown that the Quad Cities "have to have a diverse approach of job opportunities, of social opportunities, professional-growth opportunities, volunteer opportunities," Rumler said.

The message is that amenities by themselves won't bring new workers.


Marguerite Day is a former editorial intern at the River Cities' Reader and is a journalism student at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.



A Few Less Options for Teens


While all cities think it's important to retain young people, the City of Davenport took away a few entertainment options for people ages 19 and 20 over the summer. The ordinance, which was passed July 23 as part of the city-council consent agenda, restricts the number of bars that can allow 19- and 20-year-olds to enter.

The ordinance states that 19 and 20 year olds are allowed in establishments "where the sale of alcoholic beverages is incidental to the primary purpose of the establishment as a live entertainment venue or reception/banquet facility." However, live entertainment venues do not include "disc jockeys, mere playing of recorded music, light shows or displays, or social dancing." While bars can obtain a letter of exemption, the ordinance limits their events to two days.

Only Club Fusion, Dugout Sports Complex, Lumpy's, and Las Bananas have been affected. Before the ordinance, these bars were able to obtain an exemption to the 19- and 20-year-old rule because of their live entertainment. The previous law didn't define "live entertainment" or require that alcohol sales be incidental to the event.

The establishments that can keep their 19- and 20-year-old-patron exemption include the Col Ballroom, the Redstone Room, and River Music Experience courtyard.

Ron Frantz, the owner of Lumpy's, said the decision to take away his exemption doesn't make sense. "It shouldn't have been an issue," Frantz said. "I don't know why it came up." Lumpy's hosts live bands in a room separate from the bar, and the stage room - which opens at 9 p.m. and closes at 1 a.m. - has its own entrance to the street, he said.

Davenport's new law makes its standards similar to the rest of the Quad Cities, especially for venues such as the Redstone Room. Moline, for example, allows venues with a secondary liquor license to admit 19- and 20-year-olds, although they can't sit or stand at a bar. The Redstone Room contains a full bar, but it provides live entertainment as well as seating outside the bar area. Because the Redstone Room's principal business is its entertainment and ticket sales, the venue would also maintain its exemption by Bettendorf, Rock Island, and East Moline laws.

Bettendorf makes it illegal for anyone under 21 to remain in an establishment where alcohol sales are more than 50 percent of its annual sales, while Rock Island only allows people under 21 in establishments with 51 percent of their annual gross revenue coming from sales other than alcohol.

For East Moline, people under 21 are only allowed in a venue where the principal business is from anything other than the sale or service of alcohol.

Although the law sets Davenport's standards equal with the rest of the Quad Cities, some say it will eventually make the city lose out on a younger crowd. "If you don't provide entertainment, why do you think people are going to want to come back and live here?" Frantz asked.

- Marguerite Day



What Teens Want


While jobs might be the key thing to keep young people in the Quad Cities, amenities and activities for teens and younger adults remain important, particularly in creating a positive perception of the Quad Cities among young people.

"I definitely think that there are a lot of fun things you can do in the Quad Cities, but you really have to look for them," said Brianne Jenkins, a friend and a junior at Western Illinois University in Macomb.

Yet it's important to remember that teens are finicky. "I have to keep reinventing myself and keep evolving with teens because they get bored easily," said Mike Reddish, co-owner of Energy, a 19-and-under dance club in Moline. The club, with a capacity of 465 people, averages 450 teenagers on Saturday nights, Reddish said late this summer.

One of the reasons some teenagers say they want to come back to the Quad Cities is its blend of small town and big city. "It's not as huge as Chicago type of city, but you still get the big city sort of feel as well as the small town sort of feel, too," said Augustana student Jackie Celske.

Jenkins agreed: "I think it's a great area because we do have the city kind of life, not as extreme, but there's also a country side to it. It's a really good area mixed into one. I think the Quad Cities is a great place to live and they definitely do a good job of mixing those two worlds."

I talked with 15 young people in the Quad Cities, asking what they'd like to see in terms of leisure options. Although most of the people were at least 20 years old and in college, the people ranged from 15 to 22 years old. They also came from various backgrounds, including people not going to college, people in the military, people in high school, and people in college.

Remember that perception and reality are often at odds. This past weekend, for example, featured the Riverssance Festival of Fine Art, Our Big Fat Greek Festival, Erin Feis, the Bier Stube's Oktoberfest, and Brew Ha Ha. And nearly every summer weekend in the Quad Cities features a major outdoor festival.

Amanda Lorenz: "I'd like to see them [the i wireless Center] bring in acts that kids maybe more our age would enjoy because a lot of those [concerts] are David Bowie and Eric Clapton. I mean, I like that music, but a lot of kids our age don't." She suggested Dave Matthews Band, OAR, Maroon 5, and No Doubt/Gwen Stefani.

Jackie Celske: "Maybe more things outside [such as outdoor festivals] to do in the summer, especially when that's the time when a lot of kids have a lot of free time, and the Quad Cities should target that time of the year I should think."

Brianne Jenkins: "I think it would be fun if the District can maybe have all-ages night. I know they do it every once in a while where bands come down and play, but I feel like they can do a little bit better job advertising it."

Amber Buser: "I would like to see more stuff at coffee houses like poetry reading or something."

Andrew Messerschmidt: "A go-cart track is what we want. It would be awesome."

Alex Williams: "I know a lot of my friends, they want a restaurant in Rock Island. All we have is Bennigan's and another one, Rexie's or something."

- Marguerite Day


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