Someone once told me than when it came to tech and other high end talent industries, it was “New York, San Francisco, or get out.” This was before Peter Thiel made his famous statement, “If you are a very talented person, you have a choice: You either go to New York or you go to Silicon Valley.”
Another person I know once made a different argument. the case for his mid-sized city was that it was the perfect blend of “opportunity” and “access.” His argument was that in very small places you can get access, but there’s no opportunity. In the global cities you have opportunity, but it’s hard to get access. Somewhere down the hierarchy was the perfect blend of both.
I don’t doubt that’s true for some people. But in my experience the higher you go in the urban hierarchy, the better you have it for both opportunity and access.
There’s no doubt that smaller cities have great access in some respects. I’ve met mayors from any number of major US cities. But although I lived in both New York and Chicago, I’ve never met the mayor of either, and getting access would probably be very difficult.
However, what is the value of “access” in terms of the ability to personally talk with high level politicians or business leaders in a community? I would argue that the real question is what that access gets you, and from what I’ve seen it isn’t much.
Consider that Silicon Valley is a youth obsessed culture. You can come there even without a degree, and if you have the talent, have a chance to get in with a great firm or get funding for your own. There’s still an element of chance to it of course. But you aren’t going to be held back by lack of credentials or age.
New York is a different matter. It’s probably harder to come in as a penniless youth and make it big than it was back in the 70s. (That’s the topic of a future article). But I managed to find opportunities here that simply weren’t available in other cities, even ones in which I had better “access.” I see that similar things have happened to others, as they got sucked into New York, not just for the lifestyle, but for the superior professional opportunities.
I’d argue that from a practical perspective, the best opportunity-access combos for high talent people are in coastal cities like NYC and SF.
One thing I’ve noticed about smaller cities is that while some markers of social status are easier to achieve there – say getting onto the board of some non-profit – they are often seniority driven communities where older people still dominate all the real positions of power and there’s an incredible play it safe mentality when it comes to taking a chance on someone young and new who hasn’t been an overtly political pole climber. Maybe it has something to do with the manufacturing background of many of the places I engage with.
The one thing I always tell smaller places about talent attraction is that they need to leverage their smallness to really provide genuine, rapid opportunity to people who can prove themselves. Actual professional or other tangible opportunities are a powerful motivator for people, even in an age in which people supposedly pick a place to live, then look for a job there.
Smaller and mid-sized cities should be the places where young talent can get recognized, get real step-up opportunities, and make it to the top faster (if they deliver the goods) than larger cities. Unfortunately, this doesn’t seem to be the case.
I always find it puzzling when I see people struggle to get traction in some smaller place, then knock it out of the park in a larger arena. Some of it is the cultural mismatch I talked about in a recent Governing column. But that cultural gap can be a real problem for smaller places that can’t seem to attract superstar or A-caliber talent.
Finding a way to provide genuine opportunities to top caliber people who are still in the pre-reputation phase may be one of the most important things communities need to do to keep those folks from ending up on the coasts.