The 2021-22 Midlands Regional Competitiveness Report highlighted a disturbing problem with retaining talent in the Columbia metro area. Sponsored by the Midlands Business Leadership Group and Engenuity SC, the Midlands Regional Competitiveness Report has been producing reports on our area’s business competitiveness in comparison with nine other regional markets since 2014.
They include Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina; Greenville, South Carolina; Knoxville, Tennessee; Charleston, S.C.; Greensboro, N.C.; Winston-Salem, N.C.; Augusta, Georgia; Lexington, Kentucky; and Tallahassee, Florida. In this latest report, Columbia ranked last in retaining talent, and for the third year in a row it has placed last or second to last. Why we are not retaining talent and what can be done to rectify this problem are two questions that are in desperate need of an answer.
What talent are we actually losing? According to Joey Von Nessen, Ph.D., research economist at the University of South Carolina’s Darla Moore School of Business, “We are losing graduates who earn bachelor’s degrees from South Carolina’s four-year public and private colleges and universities — more so compared to graduates of South Carolina’s technical college system.”
Many of these graduates are from out of state and are going home to follow a career instead of staying in Columbia. In fact, 91 percent of USC graduates do not stay in Columbia, leaving a measly 9 percent retention rate. And in a 2017 study by the S.C. Commission on Higher Education, less than half of all STEM graduates were found in South Carolina’s wage records five years after graduation.
Raleigh-Durham has the highest retention of talent of the 10 markets studied in the Midlands Regional Competitiveness Report. Joey attributes this to Raleigh’s well-established industry clusters that are fast growing in high tech research and development.
“Examples of these industry clusters include advanced manufacturing, information technology, life sciences, and clean energy technology. These growing industry clusters provide a significant volume of high-wage jobs and are thus attractive to many local university graduates,” says Joey.
Columbia Opportunity Resource, founded in 2005, is a group of professionals inspired to make the Columbia area better at attracting, retaining, and connecting young talent to the Columbia region’s business and civic world. Groups like the City of Columbia, the Greater Columbia Chamber of Commerce, Engenuity SC, and Midlands Business Leadership Group, among others, have been involved in assisting COR’s mission since its inception. This mission is implemented in three ways:
- Connecting members with executive leaders, mentors, and developments happening in the Columbia region.
- Providing and promoting volunteer opportunities.
- Promoting Columbia to Columbians.
One effort in this goal of retaining talent is “Crash Course Columbia,” a COR program focused on educating local young professionals on what Columbia has to offer in an immersive experience. Kelsey Carmichael Bickley, COR board chair and Crash Course Columbia co-founder, relates how the program came about.
“Crash Course Columbia grew out of many conversations with community leaders in 2019,” Kelsey says, “but it all started with a happy hour at Bourbon on Main Street when Ashley Elsey, COR immediate past chair and Crash Course Columbia co-founder, and I were talking about the apparent disconnect in perception of the Columbia region when comparing different industries. People in marketing and hospitality, like us, seem to be in love with Columbia and excited for its growth. But those in industries like insurance, banking, pharmaceuticals, and others, are not as excited simply because they are unaware of the region’s offerings. So, we thought: ‘What if we came up with a program that would give others the same behind-the-scenes opportunities that we get to experience, even if just for a day?’”
The group tours some of Columbia’s hot spots and entertainment districts. The goal is to develop local champions who will connect with the region’s culture, get involved with the community, and stay in Columbia. “We like to think of it as a day and a half professional development tour to get to know your city,” says Kelsey.
The Crash Course Columbia program was shaped by a local study showing that people trusted information from word-of-mouth or real-life experiences more so than institutions. Ashley says, “So, we established a goal to have an approximate 1:5 ratio of hosts to participants so that the hosts — who are trained on the latest talking points — can share information with participants and ensure that they are having a great time.”
The latest Crash Course took place this past October with the largest numbers of participants to date. The pandemic created a setback to the program, but this most recent course indicates a resumption of eager young professionals interested in what Columbia has to offer.
When asked what type of metrics they use to analyze results, Kelsey says, “Prior to our tour, we send a survey asking attendees questions like, ‘Have you ever visited any of the establishments listed on the itinerary?’ or ‘On a scale, how would you rate your current perception of Columbia?’ Four to six months after the tour, we ask if they have been back to any of these establishments and if their perception has changed. We also get testimonials from the attendees during the tour.”
COR has built relationships with some of Columbia’s largest employers, such as BlueCross BlueShield of South Carolina, Aflac, AgFirst, and Nephron, that have built Crash Course Columbia into their corporate cultures. “We would like to see our corporate partnerships continue to grow, especially in industry clusters like insurance, insurance technology or ‘insurtech,’ and life sciences. In order for our region to continue to grow, it’s important that these clusters flourish, and attracting talent is a big component of industry growth. We want to be a part of that growth,” says Ashley.
A working relationship with the region’s area colleges and universities is a key component in retaining talent in Columbia. COR also runs a program for college students called “Capture Columbia,” with the purpose of convincing young graduates to start their career here. Similar to Crash Course, Capture Columbia provides events for students to connect with the Columbia community. Getting faculty and staff involved through Crash Course too would strengthen their connection to the region as working residents.
Another finding from the Competitiveness Report is “Livability,” which has a large effect on talent retention. Columbia ranked second to last in this category. Livability has seven components: arts and entertainment, health care access, commute time, vitality, cost of living, crime, and the well-being index.
In some of these categories, Columbia ranked in the top four, such as health care access, vitality (percentage of population aged 15 to 44), and the well-being index. It ranked poorly, however, in arts and entertainment (employment in this industry) and crime. Out of the 10 metro areas, Columbia ranked last in crime. Development of the riverfront should help Columbia improve livability, as well as getting a handle on crime through an increase in police officers.
A bright spot in the report is Columbia’s ranking in the entrepreneurial and business environment category. It placed third, ahead of Raleigh-Durham in fourth and behind Tallahassee in second and Charleston, which ranked first. Within this category, Columbia ranks high in business density, business services, establishment growth rate, and proprietor’s income share.
According to Joey, “South Carolina has maintained the fastest growing life science industry in the southeastern United States since 2017, with much of this growth having emerged from Columbia.” If Columbia can overcome its challenge of retaining talent through efforts such as Crash Course Columbia, then the city could take off with its pro-business and entrepreneurial spirit.