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What do young business people like about St. Louis? Survey had some surprises

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, April 4, 2012 - For young professional transplants to the St. Louis area, the most perplexing question may not be “Where did you go to high school?” Instead, it may be asking themselves, “Who am I going to hang out with after work?”

Recruiting workers is one thing, but retaining them and making sure they are fulfilled in their personal lives as well as on the job can be an equally challenging task. So how happy are young professionals at local companies? The Regional Business Council decided to ask – and it was pretty impressed with what it learned:

  • On a 1-5 scale of St. Louis, love it or leave it, 59 percent rated it in the top two categories.
  • More than half the respondents, primarily ages 21-44, said job opportunities were a primary reason they were encouraged about staying here.
  • Clubs, associations and volunteering were the easiest way to meet new people.
  • Affordability was the most underrated aspect of life in St. Louis.

“We are traditionally known as having closed networks,” said Kathy Osborn, the council’s executive director. “With the Regional Business Council, we’ve tried to open those networks. It’s hard to do if you don’t know where to find people like we’ve found, but if you’ve found them, why wouldn’t you want to open those networks? We really want people talking about maybe some things we underrate about St. Louis, things we ought to stop being so negative about.”
Osborn said the council put together its Young Professionals Network about four years ago, working with local colleges and universities to help encourage students to remain in the St. Louis area after graduation.

“A lot of them would say, ‘We love our jobs, but we don’t have a lot of connections here in St. Louis, and we have to have connections,’” Osborn recalled.

Osborn recalled talking with one woman, an engineer at Boeing, who said she loved where she worked.

“I said, ‘Are you dating anybody?’ and she looked at me like it was never going to happen in St. Louis. It dawned on me if she was going to stay in St. Louis, she did need to feel she could develop the kind of social network she wanted to develop. It helped me realize how important that was.”

Helping to build that kind of a social network became a major goal, with a series of events that helped the young professionals group grow to 1,200 members, including many who were not native to the area.

With the survey, Osborn said, “We wanted to find out who they are, where they live, where they hang out, what they think we need to improve. It would be instructive not only for us but for the greater community.

“We don’t pretend to say this is what every person in this age range thinks. It’s a defined group of people who in most cases are either working in large companies in St. Louis or are entrepreneurs. But it’s a group of people we should be thinking about.”

What members of that group were thinking about sometimes surprised her – where they live, for one.

“We always think about the central corridor,” Osborn said. “But for this snapshot, there was a different type of corridor – from St. Louis Hills and Soulard, up to Interstate 64, then up north through to University City to Maryland Heights and Hazelwood and Florissant.

“When was the last time we had dialogue about how things are going in Florissant? If we want to keep those people here, we have to learn more about these areas.”

And Osborn said she was also impressed about the willingness – even the eagerness – of survey respondents to volunteer to help improve aspects of the area that they said are falling short.

“They are fairly bullish about St. Louis,” she said. “but what was interesting to me is that where areas aren’t attractive to them, they are willing to roll up their sleeves and do something about it.”

Affordability was another key, she said.

“They have jobs, for the most part,” Osborn pointed out, “but we have to remember that what follows that is affordability. I think we are sometimes shy about things that we know are assets, but we don’t think of them as sexy. For this group of people, affordability is all about how they can stay. It makes their money go a lot further is they can buy a house here or find it easy to get around here.”

Here is how a few of the people who took the survey thought about the questions, the results and the area they have chosen to call home.

Faithea Flowers, from Hopewell, Va., works at Citi mortgage in O’Fallon, Mo., lives in north St. Louis County.

She has lived in most areas of St. Louis and St. Louis County since moving here for a job and an MBA degree at Washington university. She calls herself a “huge Forest Park fan” who was able to develop her own network through her job and other activities, but the Regional Business Council helped make that group larger and more diverse.

“What I tell people about St. Louis is that it’s a good mix between a big city and a small town,” Flowers said. “It’s a big city in some of its attributes, like public transportation, but it has the feel of a small town. People are welcoming here. Having one of the highest rates of volunteerism in the United States is tremendous.”

Flowers’ volunteerism includes being active in the Herbert Hoover Boys and Girls Club, where she said she is the youngest member of the board.

She also is engaged in helping recruit students to work for Citi.

“I try to tell many of the upcoming graduates, if you are not from St. Louis, here are the reasons I would recommend you consider staying,” she said. “Traffic isn’t bad. I think people from St. Louis make an effort to find connections with other people that they meet.

“Nothing was oversold to me. I would say you need to come to St. Louis because it’s a great place to grow your career, grow your civic involvement and do it with a very affordable cost of living.”

Pradeep Rajendran, from Chennai, India, works at AT&T downtown, lives in DeMun area

Rajendran doesn’t get the high school question too often – “I think my accent gives me away,” he said.

He came to the United States to earn a master’s degree at the University of Nebraska, then joined AT&T in 2005. He decided that St. Louis be a good place to live based on online research, even though not everything he found was positive.

“I don’t believe everything I read,” he said. “I moved here. I love the job and I love the city. It took me a while, but after meeting a bunch of people, it’s my home now.”

He takes advantage of his neighborhood to use Forest Park a lot, and he appreciates being close to his job, whether he drives or takes MetroLink. He also appreciates having the opportunity to work with community leaders, in groups like the Asian-American Chamber of Commerce, to help make what he considers a good city even better.

“I don’t know what other people feel,” Rajendran said, “but I have been made to feel welcome. People tend to stick to their comfort zone, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t willing to make you comfortable.”

He said he wants to help work to create jobs, because “no matter how open the city is, if it doesn’t have jobs, people are going to go to other places.”

And he also wants to help create an atmosphere where relationships can thrive.

“You need to go out and meet people,” he said. “When I moved here, I knew no one. Now I can’t go anyplace without meeting two people I know. It’s the responsibility of anybody to reach out to other people and join groups like the Young Professionals Network, where they can meet like-minded people. Then, you very very quickly form a group of friends.

“I love St. Louis, and I’m pretty sure anybody who comes here and gets to know the city would love St. Louis. It has so many things to do for all different kinds of people. St. Louis offers a plethora of things to do, and it’s very affordable.”

Breanna Moore, who grew up in University City, now works in west St. Louis County with Cassidy Turley and lives in north St. Louis County.

She also is sold on volunteerism as a way to meet people and to make the community better, working at her son’s elementary school, with the United Way and other organizations like Ronald McDonald House.

“Of course there is a big benefit to knowing you have helped an area that needed your help,” Moore said, “but I also find it interesting to meet other people and learn about their experiences. I’m an entrepreneur, so I like meeting people and find other ways to connect with them.”

Moore has a small business managing residential rehab, with a focus on green rehab, reusing materials that can add value and help reduce utility bills.

“There may not be a large understanding of what is green,” she said, “but people can definitely relate to not just wanting to get rid of everything. If there is a functional use, they want to make it functional again. I think that the biggest draw is saving money.”

As a native, she thinks the St. Louis area often is underrated by those who live and grew up here.

“When I was younger,” Moore said, “I thought I would move somewhere else that is bigger and better. Now that I’m older and have traveled more, I can appreciate more what we have here.

“We’re not a large city. I think commuting and traffic are not as big a hassle here as in some of the larger cities. We have a lot of parks. I think St. Louis definitely has a great supply of large employers, and the economy is fairly good. We’re not on the coasts, so we don’t get the large fluctuations in unemployment and that kind of stuff. It’s a good place to raise a family. You hear about crime, but I think it’s concentrated in certain areas.”

What would she like to change? Except for this past year, Moore hasn’t been too crazy about the weather -- too cold in December and too hot in July.

“Usually in winter,” she said, “I’m always wondering when is spring going to come.”

Dale Singer began his career in professional journalism in 1969 by talking his way into a summer vacation replacement job at the now-defunct United Press International bureau in St. Louis; he later joined UPI full-time in 1972. Eight years later, he moved to the Post-Dispatch, where for the next 28-plus years he was a business reporter and editor, a Metro reporter specializing in education, assistant editor of the Editorial Page for 10 years and finally news editor of the newspaper's website. In September of 2008, he joined the staff of the Beacon, where he reported primarily on education. In addition to practicing journalism, Dale has been an adjunct professor at University College at Washington U. He and his wife live in west St. Louis County with their spoiled Bichon, Teddy. They have two adult daughters, who have followed them into the word business as a communications manager and a website editor, and three grandchildren. Dale reported for St. Louis Public Radio from 2013 to 2016.