Not Just About Money: How Cities Become Leaders in Talent Attraction

A city’s brand can serve as a beacon to draw the attention of international talents (World Class Cities Partnership)

The laws of attraction

While on macro level globalisation, demographics and pipelines are responsible for the world talent redistribution, talent attraction campaigns as a part of a city’s or region’s branding/marketing strategy work well on nation level.

Already Alfred Marshall, author of Principles of Economics, observed many years ago that workers in skilled occupations tend to cluster in areas where their peers live and work. Employees are willing to move to an area that promises a future beyond one company.

Places branding themselves as melting pots of cultures become especially attractive for highly skilled migrants. Ease of settling in and adaptation together with feel being right at home has a direct impact on work productivity and helps to create a healthy multicultural community of a place.

The communities that attract and retain talent are open to all, regardless of gender, age, sexual orientation, race and ethnicity. But they must be more than open; they must be proactively inclusive. That means providing not just tolerance but opportunity and engagement, making it easy for people to plug in and follow their dreams.

Richard Florida

One of the main principles of successful place management and branding is a coordinated work of all place stakeholders within the cohesive place context: policy makers, private and public businesses, academia and civil society. In the context of talent attraction, the importance of cohesive collaboration among stakeholders is obvious.

A university presence in any city means greater opportunities for attraction and retention of talent. While the quality of education and career opportunities are important factors of attraction for an academic institution per se, cities can add up with welcoming integration programs and diversity of lifestyle offering.

Together with tax incentives, availability of talented highly skilled workforce determines any place success in terms of attractiveness for businesses and investors. Private businesses are looking for ways to capitalize on the high density of talent clusters, moving closer to the universities and locating jobs around the future workforce pools. This, to a great extent, contributes to a long-term talent retention.

In other words, cities, academic institutions and businesses working together can create shared value in developing a strong place brand.

Collaboration between city or region and universities as talent incubators in developing strategic programs and policies for talent attraction and retention offers mutual benefits for both. Cities adjust the priority of urban challenges to better meet the needs of the newcomers and potential residents. Universities raise the value of their offering to the students. Coordinated work of city-business-academia can help to overcome the hurdle of skills mismatch, a problem which can lead to unfilled jobs and lost chances for talent retention. For instance, after the burst of the construction bubble in Ireland in the early 2000s, many workers found themselves with skills unrelated to the growing high-tech sector.

Collaboration can help to integrate students into the city community, giving them an opportunity to develop their relationship with a place, its culture, businesses and institutions. Then there is a greater chance that postgraduate students will choose their job placement locally, where their university is.

There are numerous examples displaying the positive effects of such collaboration on city brand.


Cambridge city talent magnet

Cambridge, UK is a city with a dominant university presence and a strong city brand. The academic reputation of Cambridge University makes this place prestigious, attracting young talents worldwide and supplying local companies with a rich pool of talents every year.

The other important aspect of attraction is the high degree of “networking”, enabling people across the region to find partners, jobs, funding, and know-how. Cambridgeshire County Council has special programs to help with employment of young people and offers advice, career service, further training allocation. Apprenticeships are available in a wide range of industry sectors, with employers from large national companies to smaller local companies.

Barcelona city for innovation talent attractionBarcelona

Another example is Barcelona, branding itself as a City of Innovations. Its well-known 22@Barcelona innovation district stands behind the city brand message. Since its creation in 2000, the 22@Barcelona innovation district has attracted approximately 4.500 companies, half of them start-ups, resulting in more than 56,000 new workers. Barcelona’s Pompeu Fabra University created a new campus within the 22@ innovation district, which encourages synergies between businesses and post-secondary education.

It is not always about money

The ability of a city or region to lure and retain a strong and growing talent pool is determined by its ability to sustain businesses and jobs that they create, as well as to offer the best life conditions. In order to succeed, city branders need to understand the demands and decision-making process of a highly skilled working population.

According to the LinkedIn Global Talent Trends report 2015, while compensation (which determines the disposable income) is the top consideration when accepting new work opportunities, it might not be the most important one. Work/life balance, professional development and opportunities for advancement are equally important.

Today millennials, adults 34 and younger, represent the largest component of the workforce in the developed countries. Many of them prefer to live in green, walkable neighborhoods with mixed amenities, move on bicycles or use public transport. Millennials want the sense of place with a good mix of activities, and in order to succeed cities need to invest in their choices and tastes.

What is more, millennials want their workplaces to be close to their homes. According to ULI Institute, 62 percent of millennials preferred a home close to shops, restaurants and offices. With the modern level of technology and with prevailing demand of STEM jobs (those requiring a science, technology, engineering, or math-related degree), this is a doable task for city managers and branders.

For many U.S. companies, attracting and retaining millennial workers seems to require having a downtown office.

Probably for the first time in history, instead of people moving where jobs are, jobs are moving where the talent is”, says Tom Murphy, a senior fellow at the Urban Land Institute.

Quality and diversity of city life, mentioned already by Jane Jacobs, play a large role in talent relocation and retention. But the number of amenities can vary depending on age. Students and childless young professionals are looking for a hip environment, nightlife options and transit availability. When they start a family, their priorities shift towards housing affordability, especially in calmer and greener neighborhoods, and a variety of public services in the sphere of education, healthcare etc.

Talent attraction campaigns to learn from

Houston city with no limits marketing

Houston’s remarkable “The City with no limits” campaign demonstrates the emerging best practices in talent attraction, based on close collaboration of city stakeholders, such as proactive participation of local companies in design and integrated communication of a talent attraction campaign.

The Montreal Talent Attraction strategic marketing campaign helps to brand the city as a destination for career advancement and quality of life.

Scandinavian consulting firm Tendensor (now Future Place Leadership) successfully helps Nordic and European cities and regions to become Talent Brands, with its unique Talent Attraction Management strategic tool. Tendensor analyses current talent attraction efforts, marketing, expat services, partnerships with employers and social integration and comes out with tailor-made solutions for each case.

Svetlana Masjutina, Research Manager Bearing ConsultingAbout the author

Svetlana Masjutina is an independent researcher and adviser based in Monaco with a focus on urban innovation, territorial marketing and the branding and promotion of places and destinations.

Connect with Svetlana on LinkedIn.


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