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On the Rise

A look at communities making big strides in talent attraction and development

January 19, 2021 by Drew Repp

Rankings are great. It’s fun to see your state is ranked 3rd for business friendliness or your metro ranks #5 for concentration of people with a college degree. But what’s even better is seeing your community rise in those rankings. So we thought it would be fun to take a look at communities that are rising in one of our favorite rankings: the Talent Attraction Scorecard. With five years of data and rankings, we have a clear picture of how communities currently trend in talent attraction.

Each year we use data on population and migration, growth of jobs and skilled workers, regional competitiveness, and education attainment to create an index and then rank large (100,000+ population), small (5,000 — 99,999 population), and micro counties (population of less than 5,000). 

This year’s Scorecard captures the status of counties just before the pandemic hit. These rankings allow communities to examine how they are trending in talent attraction, which strategies they should continue with, and which strategies they need to adjust.  

We’ll look at a few different categories to see the communities that have made great strides over the last five years:

  1. Large County Overall Biggest Risers

  2. Large County Biggest Risers in the Top 50

  3. Small County Overall Biggest Risers

  4. Small County Biggest Risers in the Top 50

Large County Overall Biggest Risers

Of all large counties, Pima County, AZ, made the biggest gains, jumping from No. 546 to No. 91 (455 spots). And while Pima was on a steady rise since 2016, it made its biggest leap this last year, climbing 269 spots since 2019. Its highest ranking in the index came in migration and from 2015 to 2019 the county also saw a 9% jump in skilled jobs.

The second biggest gain was had by Houston County, GA. Nearly matching Pima, the central Georgia county rose 439 spots to No. 101 in 2020. Fueled by 9% job growth, Houston County is knocking on the door of the top 100, where five other Georgia counties live (No. 7 Fulton, No. 44 Forsyth, No. 51 Cherokee, No. 77 Henry, and No. 98 Paulding).

Large County Biggest Risers in the Top 50

Two Ohio counties not only made the overall biggest risers list (see above chart), but also sit atop the list of biggest risers within the top 50. Of large counties in the top 50, Licking and Fairfield County, OH, had the biggest gains since 2016.

Licking has risen 384 spots since 2016. Sitting just east of Columbus, Licking has an extensive list of companies that have invested in the region over the last five years. The result is an 11% increase in skilled jobs and 17% overall job growth. Also sitting east of Columbus (and adjacent to the south of Licking), Fairfield County climbed 321 spots since 2016, and 297 spots over the last year alone.

Migration was the highest ranking for Pierce County, WA. Home to the trendy and rejuvenated city of Tacoma, the area has emerged as an alternative to costly Seattle (King County).

Small County Overall Biggest Risers

With more than 2,200 small counties, there is lots of room for communities to alter their trend in talent attraction. And with smaller populations to begin with, these counties can have bigger swings due to growth in a single industry, opening of a new facility, or policy change. 

The biggest small county riser since 2016 has been Newton County, MO. Part of the Joplin MSA, Newton has seen a 39% growth in skilled jobs over the last five years. With a strong healthcare network, this skilled job growth is due to expanding hospital needs. The general medical and surgical hospitals industry (NAICS 6221) grew to 3,391 in 2020. A 560% growth from 2015.

The singular impact of an industry is seen in a more well known area: Los Alamos, NM. Home to the National Laboratory—whose mission is to solve national security challenges through scientific excellence—the county saw an uptick of nearly 2,000 jobs in the scientific research and development services industry (NAICS 5417).

Small County Biggest Risers in the Top 50

Of counties in the top 50, there are again familiar names from the overall biggest risers. In this case, Newton County, MO; Rudolph County, AR; Los Alamos County, NM; and Manassas Park County, VA.

However, steady risers into the top 50 include Pickaway, OH; Randolph County, AR; and Mitchell County, IA. Each highlights the uniqueness of rural communities: that their talent attraction growth is fueled differently. Randolph and Mithchell both ranked well in job growth. Randolph saw production occupations grow by 154% since 2015, primarily due to the opening of a poultry processing facility in 2016. Mitchell’s job growth appears to be fueled by construction. With construction and extraction along with installation, maintenance, and repair occupations growing 112% and 92% respectively since 2015. 

Meanwhile, Pickaway’s rise in our talent attraction rankings appears to be largely due to inbound migration. Benefiting from being adjacent to a larger metro (Columbus, OH), Pickaway’s strongest ranking in the six Scorecard variables was in migration.

How to be a riser

Many factors contribute to a community’s labor market and growth of their talent pool. Some, like a global pandemic or macro economic forces like international trade deals, aren’t in their control. But things that are in their control require a proactive approach.

And while it’s often the case that negative forces will make talent development harder, it’s not always the case that positive forces will naturally result in talent growth. For example, although e-commerce continues to see rapid growth, it doesn’t mean that your community is meeting all the talent needs of local e-commerce companies. 

We’ve laid out five strategies for being proactive in talent attraction and development. But if you’ve procrastinated and are rushing out the door to present to your board or city council on your new talent attraction plan (that you haven’t started) here’s what you can let them know your organization will be doing:

  1. Assessing your community’s strengths and weaknesses
  2. Identifying the most pressing needs in your community
  3. Using data to guide your strategy

And as you go about this work, you plan to follow three principles:

  1. Coordinate and collaborate – Like all economic and workforce development, talent attraction is a collaborative effort. Everyone from the visitors bureau to higher education is involved, so staying coordinated will be a priority.
  2. Follow the lead of businesses – In talent attraction, your client is actually local businesses (supporting them with the talent they need to grow). They know their current needs and are the best ones to advise on trends and likely needs in the future.
  3. Focus on skills – To help talent align to rapidly changing industries as well as a post-COVID labor market, you’ll focus on reskilling and upskilling.

This should buy you some time while you dive into the Talent Attraction Strategies for 2021 guide. This work isn’t easy. But as these communities have shown, over time, your community can set a positive trend in talent attraction.


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