The Washington region must do more to lure and retain millennials to remain economically competitive, according to a new survey of top local business executives, and a high-level civic group is studying how to keep the area attractive to young, well-educated workers.
The District has a higher share of millennials than any other major U.S. city. But the area’s desirability is in jeopardy, the report says, because of the high cost of housing, the troubled transit system and crowded roads, and fading job openings owing to federal budget cuts.
“Over the past decade, the Washington area attracted lots of young, talented workers,” said Ellen Harpel, an Arlington, Va.-based business consultant, who helped lead the study. “But now other metropolitan areas are growing faster, and they’re increasingly offering more compelling job and career opportunities.”
Rival areas “offer easier, less expensive but still attractive lifestyles,” Harpel said at a meeting Thursday with business and civic leaders in a group called the Roadmap for the Washington Region’s Economic Future. “The Washington region really needs to up its game.”
The study, based partly on 35 in-depth interviews with chief executives and other leaders of local companies, also identified other barriers to economic growth in the region, including inequalities and competition among jurisdictions and Washington’s reputation for political gridlock and inefficiency.
The survey was commissioned by the Roadmap group. It is seeking an ambitious, area-wide response to the historic slowdown in federal spending.
Founded by the 2030 Group, a business organization, the Roadmap has 12 other sponsors, including the Greater Washington Board of Trade, Federal City Council, Fairfax and Montgomery chambers of commerce, Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments and the Washington Regional Association of Grantmakers.
The study’s results provided fresh arguments for the Roadmap to use in pressing local political leaders to set aside parochial differences and work together on behalf of the region as a whole.
To further that effort, the Roadmap leaders set up working groups Thursday to discuss proposals such as creating strong centralized regional authorities to oversee policy and raise funds for transportation and housing.
They also want to “rebrand” the Washington region to improve its image and to encourage local universities to work more closely with businesses to provide internships, apprenticeships and mid-career training.
The working groups are to report back in late November.
Similar efforts in the past to encourage greater regional cooperation — often targeting the same issues of transportation and housing — have foundered because of a lack of funding as well as divisions among Virginia, Maryland, the District, and local counties and municipalities.
But Roadmap leaders said that they think prospects may be better this time because the region is worried about losing the federal government as its principal economic engine as a result of the mandated budget cuts known as sequestration.
In addition, the plethora of safety, reliability and financial difficulties with the Metro transit system has highlighted the need for the different parts of the region to work together for a common purpose.
“We can’t wait five or 10 years,” George Mason University economist Stephen S. Fuller, who oversaw the survey, told the group Thursday. “We need to start moving quickly because we’re lagging behind.”
He noted that the Washington-area economy fell from fifth place to sixth in the nation in 2014, based on total output; Dallas overtook it. The Washington area was No. 4 as recently as 2012, but Houston passed it in 2013.
Business leaders at the Roadmap meeting at a Bank of America office near the White House vented frustration at politicians and others for what they saw as failure to provide sufficiently strong leadership for the region.
“It drives me crazy that nobody’s in charge here,” Jim Corcoran, chief executive of the Fairfax Chamber of Commerce, told the group. “I’ve been saying it for 51/2 years: Who the hell’s in charge? . . . We break down at the jurisdictional level. How do we fix that?”
John T. “Til” Hazel Jr., a prominent Northern Virginia lawyer and developer who helped build Tysons Corner, said politicians and some business leaders were complacently ignoring the danger posed by sequestration.
“There’s still major, major refusal by politicians and business to realize that the future is not guaranteed by the growth of the federal government,” Hazel said. The region “won’t get anywhere until we’re able to convince the leadership, political and business, that there’s something that needs to be done,” he said.
One of the study’s key findings was the high degree of interest in protecting the Washington area’s allure to millennials.
The District now ranks as the nation’s top city as a home for millennials, with 38 percent of its total population between 16 and 35, according to a recent study by the Urban Land Institute. Another forthcoming ULI study, from which a few highlights have been released, found the District’s millennials to be very satisfied and called them “optimistic urbanists.”
But the younger workers will not necessarily stay in the area as they age, according to the Roadmap survey, if other metropolitan areas offer better career paths and lifestyles. That would be a major setback for the Washington economy, for which a primary strength is its highquality workforce.
A big part of keeping millennials is providing housing they can afford and mass transit that they desire. Another is ensuring that they are able to learn skills to move ahead in their jobs.
Harpel, the business consultant, said that providing “interesting career pathways” was “a phrase and a topic we heard across all industry clusters, with a whole wide range of business executives” — and the focus was always on millennials.
“Their concern is you’ve got all these people who came to the Washington region . . . looking to make the next step in their career,” Harpel said. “It’s not obvious for them how to do that, and if this is the best place for them to do that.”
“More robust career education” would be a practical solution, she said. The Consortium of Universities of the Washington Metropolitan Area and George Mason University will head the working group studying that challenge.