West Virginian hops train to brainstorm how state can attract young talent

The types of questions Natalie Roper received on “the millennial train” went beyond the basic get-to-know-you kind of inquiries.

They skipped over the niceties. And instead, Roper and her fellow participants on the Millennial Trains Project dove into hearty discussions about social change and how millennials are impacting their communities. They listened to speakers from national nonprofits, visited cities focused on innovation like Detroit and Milwaukee, and met with community leaders.

Roper said many times she would be sitting on the floor in a ’50s-style train car, surrounded by young people, all trying to determine their role in changing the world, while listening to a speaker from the Rockefeller Foundation. Meanwhile their train zipped by fields of corn on the journey to their next stop.

Roper, executive director of Generation West Virginia, and 25 of her peers, all diverse young leaders, recently concluded the 10-day trip across the country with the Millennial Trains Project. Founded in 2013 by Patrick Dowd, the nonprofit is designed to take millennials on a journey across the country, stopping in five cities that are working hard to retain young talent, while creating an environment to brainstorm ideas and foster progress.

It’s a rubber-meets-the-road kind of mentality. Instead of reading about how Detroit is working to attract young talent, the nonprofit took participants there and showed them. It took them to a millennial tech summit in San Francisco and hosted them for a rooftop dinner in Los Angeles to showcase a new dining project.

“I hope I’m cool enough for this,” Roper joked before flying to Los Angeles to catch the train Aug. 10.

Roper had to apply and submit a project to work on during the train ride. She was the only person representing West Virginia. Roper’s project focused on answering the question that drives her organization: How does West Virginia attract and retain its young talent?

Young talent is a regular export of the Mountain State. According to a 2009 study by PayScale.com, a salary information website, 72 percent of graduates from West Virginia University leave the state within five years of graduation. Between July 1, 2014, and July 1, 2015, West Virginia lost more than 6,100 people, a higher rate of loss than any other state in the country, according to a population estimate by the U.S. Census Bureau.

“West Virginia’s future depends on its ability to attract and retain young adults, who fuel economic growth and urban revitalization,” Roper wrote in her proposal to the Millennial Trains Project.

During every stop in L.A., San Francisco, Denver, Milwaukee and Detroit, Roper met with chambers of commerce, community organizations and nonprofits to learn about what they are doing to attract and retain young talent.

Even places like San Francisco, Roper said, which has a high percentage of young people, city organizers, planners and large businesses, are making decisions around the retention and attraction of workers 18 to 34 years of age.

“I was shocked at this sense of urgency for attracting and retaining young people in every single city, especially San Fran. ... They are the hub for young people,” Roper said. “They knew that success of a place equals the number of young people you have.”

At its most basic level, attracting young, talented people to your city or state is about growing your tax base. It’s about having enough tax payers to support critical infrastructure needs, to provide enough funds so a city can grow its quality of life.

But it’s much more than that. It’s about a state or city’s survival and growth in a knowledge economy, Roper said.

“In a knowledge economy, our greatest asset is young people with great ideas and the ability to get them done,” she said. “So we have to be a place where they want to be.”

Millennials are the most mobile generation. Thanks to technology, millennials can find ways to work from wherever they want.

So, how are places like Detroit, a city that filed bankruptcy three years ago, luring millennials to come and start a life there?

Narrative.

“In Detroit they even said, ‘Sometimes the narrative has more power than reality,’” Roper said.

Detroit still has a long way to recovery. Roper said the city’s downtown has only one major street that’s been renovated and populated with new trendy restaurants and businesses.

But people are moving there because they believe in the narrative of the city. Roper spoke to many leaders of nonprofits in Detroit, and they all said the same things: “Detroit is for doers,” “In Detroit, we get things done,” “Detroit is big enough to matter in the world, but small enough for you to matter in it.”

West Virginia already has its narrative, Roper said. It’s what defines its culture and shapes its people. It’s not a blank canvas.

“The reason we have a culture right now that is amazing for a young person to be a part of is because we’ve always been resilient. We’ve always been a place that steps up. We’ve always been a place of self starters,” Roper said.

Narrative provides hope, she said. It’s powerful. It helps bring a bankrupt city like Detroit back from the brink.

Roper spent a lot of time talking to fellow train passengers and organizers about West Virginia’s narrative, about what it has to offer young people.

“I’m able to say, ‘I have an opportunity as a young person to be a part of conversations that are envisioning the state’s future, to work with people in the legislature,’” Roper said.

“We’re not so behind on this wave. We have a lot of foundational things that other places don’t have.”

These include a low cost of living, access to networks in the state and local governments and a tremendous amount of outdoor recreation.

And it isn’t that people living in other states have negative perceptions of West Virginia, Roper said. It’s that they don’t have any perceptions of the place.

“Most people just said, ‘I don’t know anything that happens there,’” Roper said. “We’re not really combating that many negative stereotypes. We are creating our narrative. People don’t know anything about this place.”

To learn about the Millennial Trains Project, visit www.millennialtrain.co.

Reach Anna Patrick at

anna.patrick@wvgazettemail.com

or 304-348-4881.

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