Efforts To Attract Young Professionals Gain Momentum

When Nick O’Brien graduated from college, he was prepared to go wherever the job market took him. This is how he landed in Wausau, Wisconsin, working as a TV sports reporter for a local network affiliate.

A Missouri native, O’Brien assumed when he chose a career in broadcast journalism that he’d be moving every one to two years, to wherever the next job took him. In that sense he’s an atypical Millennial, since members of that generation tend to first choose the place they want to live, and then find a job in that place.

Ironic, then, that O’Brien became a champion for the cause of encouraging his age cohort to move to, and stay in, Wausau. He made the unconventional, but perhaps more typically Millennial, decision to change careers to stay in a location he loves: when his contract with the TV station was up, instead of moving to a different market, he stayed in Wausau, and has gotten involved with statewide efforts to make Wisconsin cities and towns more attractive destinations for young professionals. (He recently left a job with the Wausau Region Chamber of Commerce’s Engage, Excite, Empower Young Professionals, or E3YP, initiative and is exploring other opportunities to increase young professional engagement around the state.)

“Wausau has a great balance of urbanism and the outdoor recreation that makes Wisconsin unique,” he says. “You can be at Concerts on the Square with 6,000 people an arm’s length away, and then you can drive for 10 minutes and be on a dirt road, feeling like you’re nowhere near a city. That’s what I’ve fallen in love with.”

In O’Brien’s mind, it’s as much a problem of perception—of Wisconsin’s cities and towns getting the word out about the strengths they already possess—as it is a problem of adding features to make those cities and towns more attractive to Millennials.

“When people tell me they’re moving away from Wausau because there’s nothing to do, it almost angers me,” he says. “I have never said, in 3½ years of living in Wausau, that there’s nothing to do.”

That’s why young professional group leaders and advocates around the state organized a statewide Young Professionals Week (YPWeek) during the last week of April. (The organizing group included O’Brien, who traveled to 25 events in 14 communities during the week.)

First created by Milwaukee-based NEWaukee in 2012, the event has expanded statewide with help and funding from the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation (WEDC).

“Seeing what NEWaukee had accomplished with regard to promoting Milwaukee as a premier destination for young professionals, we felt the same formula could be applied to other cities throughout Wisconsin,” says WEDC’s Rebecca Deschane, who helped build connections between NEWaukee and like-minded organizations across the state interested in retaining and attracting talented young people.

As a result of strategic outreach to other Wisconsin communities by WEDC and NEWaukee, YPWeek is building upon its successes—from 2015 to 2016, the number of individual events during the week increased from about 100 to about 150. Events are taking place in 15 communities this year, up from eight last year, and events are being hosted by a total of 33 organizations.

“YPWeek is an opportunity for the state as a whole to shine a light on what we have to offer for young professionals,” says Sara Guild, who has stepped into O’Brien’s former role as E3YP coordinator with the Wausau chamber. “It builds on everything our young professional groups do throughout the rest of the year.”

Angela Damiani

Angela Damiani, CEO and co-founder of NEWaukee

YPWeek’s prolific schedule of events at locations around the state includes typical networking and social events, but also many experience-oriented events that appeal to Millennials—trivia night, a murder mystery role-playing game, yoga and Crossfit sessions, volunteer opportunities and blood drives, a tour of Milwaukee’s art scene and a “dogs welcome” networking event held at a dog park. Also included are informational events on topics relevant to twentysomethings: a panel discussion on climate change, a lunch-and-learn on work-life balance and workshops on interviewing for jobs, managing money smartly and purchasing a home. The week kicks off with the Bubbler Awards ceremony to recognize Wisconsin’s best workplaces for young professionals, nominated by their employees.

The events are popular within their communities, but word has also begun to spread beyond Wisconsin’s borders. Members of the YPWeek organizing committee have begun receiving calls from national media and from other cities and states across the country wanting to duplicate what’s happening here.

“Nobody else in the country is doing this,” says Angela Damiani, CEO and co-founder of NEWaukee. “It really is unique to Wisconsin.”

(May 2016)