Most people think the focus of economic development is on bringing in new businesses and new jobs.

As unemployment rates plunge and competition for millennial workers increases, this has led to an increasingly important question: Who fills those jobs? And how do you convince them to stay?

Recruiting talent has become a much bigger piece of the economic development puzzle. More managers are seeing that jobs now follow people, not the other way around.

The Roanoke Regional Partnership, an economic development organization, has made a concerted effort to recruit talent to the region. After collaborating with its eight localities, the business community, tourism officials, colleges and universities, and professional organizations such as the regional chambers and Roanoke-Blacksburg Technology Council, the partnership is developing new and creative ways to recruit talent, ranging from new college graduates to professionals with several years of experience.

The partnership has launched the Get2KnowNoke brand to focus on bringing talent to the region. Along with it came the Get2KnowNoke summer internship program. The partnership also has taken on the Experience conference and programming for young professionals. It hosted or participated in about 20 college programs over the last six months as well.

Erin Burcham, the director of talent solutions for the partnership, has been behind a lot of the efforts. She said that a great way to recruit people is to build on personal relationships, and she serves as a funnel for students of the 25 nearby college and universities to make their way to the area.

“As a region, we must be proactive in attracting and retaining talent for economic growth and sustainability,” she said. “It is so important as our technology companies expand and grow in the Roanoke region to have the right talent available.”

Burcham’s position was created in 2017 as the need for talent began to grow in economic development. Executive Director Beth Doughty said the response has been “incredible and overwhelming” — so much so that she also plans to add another talent-related job.

“As I always like to say, talent is the currency of the 21st century,” Doughty said.

Recruiting culture

AECOM, a national engineering firm, is searching for about 25 employees for its Roanoke office, which has approximately 175 people at the top of the Wells Fargo tower. So it was a prime candidate to take part in the partnership’s college visits, hosting a group of students from James Madison University. The company also participated in a career event at Virginia Tech, where AECOM Associate Vice President Joey Caldwell spoke to students about working in the industry. The goal wasn’t to collect resumes and hand out business cards but to have a conversation with students about their future and offer advice.

“We can’t just walk into a recruiting booth at a recruiting fair and have that be it,” Caldwell said. “We have to build personal relationships.”

Having a conversation with the students felt less like a job interview, and Caldwell said it helps build trust when company representatives are not there just to grab resumes.

Roanoke-based Delta Dental, which has about 300 employees, also participated in the college recruiting visits. Kathy Claytor, vice president of human resources, said it allowed the students, upperclassmen from James Madison to get a tour of the company and see the employees and office culture in person.

The company has kept up with them since their visit, she said, giving feedback on how to apply for internships and new job openings. Delta Dental gets a lot of resumes, Claytor said, but the company is very intentional about its hiring and wants to focus on specific people who fit in with the culture and the Roanoke Valley.

A lot of younger hires are interested in office culture now, she said, and they want to have a mission-focused job that serves a greater purpose. So Claytor makes sure to talk about the company’s charitable efforts and how part of its mission is to give everyone access to dental care.

“This is a very tight labor market,” she said. “Top talent is in high demand. The responsibility is put on the employer to differentiate themselves” and highlight their culture, mission and benefits.

With regional unemployment rates falling to the lowest points in about two decades, recruiting new talent becomes even more important, especially for science, technology, engineering and math-related jobs. In March, the Roanoke unemployment rate was at 3%, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. In early 2010 after the Great Recession, it hovered above 8% and has steadily declined. National numbers have been going down as well, making it tougher for everyone to get the best hires. Having dedicated people like Burcham to bring together potential employees with business managers makes recruiting easier.

Multiple employers in the Roanoke region have said that office culture is one of the main recruiting draws, especially for millennials. Silicon Valley is famous for bringing a casual office vibe — allowing a relaxed dress code, providing gourmet coffee machines and office beer taps, and offering creative benefits such as unlimited vacation days to encourage work-life balance. So companies wanting to lure away top talent to smaller places like Roanoke have to up the ante in recruiting methods and be intentional about hiring to find the right people who fit in with the culture.

PowerSchool recruiter Madison Brown said one of the biggest challenges the education software company has with recruiting is losing talent to big tech companies like Amazon and Google, many of which have office locations in Washington, D.C. So PowerSchool in Roanoke has to do some different things to stand out from the crowd, especially in the tough hiring market right now, she said.

Last month, in conjunction with the partnership and the technology council, PowerSchool hosted a pingpong tournament and an open house, showing off its new modern downtown office along with providing food and drinks to make the event feel low key, more akin to a party than a formal gathering. It highlighted a fun, exciting vibe to the growing business.

Burcham said similar events can be planned for other companies looking to hire.

Nicus Software recently moved into a new office in Roanoke and is installing a gourmet coffee machine in its lobby. New hires will notice a room stocked with Nerf guns for staff to play with when things get too stressful. Nicus marketing director Amy Robertson said it takes a lot of small but thoughtful efforts — from office happy hours to free popcorn — to get people to come in and to stay, especially when the company has to compete for the best talent.

“But you have to back it up,” she said. “You have to be cool people.”

Nicus was in Salem for many years before it relocated downtown, and its move has been a sort of coming-out party for the growing company. Robertson is involved with networking groups like the Roanoke-Blacksburg Technology Council and hopes to partner with other organizations and schools for hiring. CEO John Clark said a lot of the new recruiting efforts aren’t revolutionary; it is just about being very intentional about attracting, retaining and developing employees. The company wants to find employees who fit with the office environment and who also would enjoy the Roanoke Valley.

“Our No. 1 asset is the people,” Clark said. “It’s the people, not the software.”

Staying in the Roanoke Valley

Some regional companies focus on selling the benefits of living in the Roanoke Valley to recruit and retain employees. The Roanoke Regional Partnership launched Roanoke Outside several years ago to help brand the region as a place for outdoors enthusiasts. That, combined with a low cost of living, safe neighborhoods and new breweries and restaurants and transportation options, all can be used as economic development tools help to attract talent.

Experience is a series of events that focuses on leadership and development for young professionals, culminating in an annual conference. The Experience conference launched in 2015 and was recently adopted by the partnership. This year’s event is June 6-7.

It has developed different tracks as well. Experience Leadership has hosted events ranging from financial planning to a creative leadership program at the Taubman Museum of Art over lunch hours. Experience Outdoors hosts meetups highlighting the region’s outdoor amenities, such as an introduction to mountain biking. The events allow young professionals to network and also enjoy different aspects of the region.

“We view it as a great way to engage young professionals in the region and make them aware of regional assets — lifestyle and professional,” Burcham said. “It is also a great platform to encourage connectivity to peers and regional leaders as mentors.”

Burcham said these events are particularly effective because people with no ties to the region are more likely to stay if they have friends here.

Attending the Experience conference in 2017 is what led Steve Ambruzs to locate his business, Downshift, in Roanoke.

Ambruzs, who went to Virginia Tech, was planning to open a retail shop in Charlottesville, but after attending the Experience conference in Roanoke he changed his mind and opened his boutique bike shop and cafe at 416 Campbell Ave. S.W.

“The people I met were into developing the community and outdoors focused,” he said. “It won me over 100%.”

At the conference, he also met Kelsey Harrington, who would go on to become the general manager at Downshift. After he decided to move to Roanoke, he said it was easier to find affordable retail space and to buy a home than other places he had been looking. Downshift has now been open since 2017.

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