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504ward Pinpoints Talent Attraction, Retention Strategies Since 2008

mary matthews 504ward

By Mary Matthews, 504ward Executive Director

New Orleans’ long- term economic competitiveness is fundamentally tied to the quality of our workforce. In order for a company to expand in or move to New Orleans, they need access to a deep, talented pool of highly skilled, highly educated workers. Talent and workforce development, therefore, are two of the most crucial pieces of the economic development puzzle, especially as opportunities in knowledge-based industries like tech and healthcare grow. 

At 504ward (housed at NOLABA since 2016), we focus on attracting and retaining a high-priority segment of the talent pool: highly-skilled and/or highly-educated 21-35-year olds (both new and native to New Orleans), individuals in the primary age range for hiring. 

How do we do it?

Retaining Young Professional Talent

In 2008, 504ward launched a communications strategy focused on retaining the influx of socially-conscious college grads who moved to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina through fellowships in fields from architecture to law, and programs like Teach For America. Twice weekly emails to 10,000+ young professionals in Greater New Orleans cover issues pertinent to the young professional demographic: career prospects, social engagement and opportunity for community impact.

We’ve come a long way since 2008 – New Orleans has won many accolades, including “America’s Biggest Brain Magnet” (Forbes) and “Top 5 in the USA for increasing share of Millennial (22-34) Jobs” (CareerBuilder), but this is no time to rest. The Data Center’s 2015 report on Educated Workforce highlighted the significant gap between metro New Orleans and the nation in the share of adults 25 and older with a bachelor’s degree or higher. We must cultivate the New Orleans brain gain to remain competitive in the global competition for talent.

In addition to promoting through our email list opportunities across the city to get connected and involved, 504ward hosts its own signature programming. Recognizing that New Orleans is a relationship-driven community, “Connectors” (established business and civic leaders) are invited to 504ward events to ensure that we build strong cross-generational ties. These relationships benefit not only the young professionals, but also the Connectors, who get access to a new network of exciting young talent. Our most popular annual event is the 504ward Dine Around where New Orleans’ top business and civic leaders open their homes for dinner for 400 young professionals all on the same night. See more about our programs here.

Retaining Local University Talent

Aside from retaining local young professionals already in the workforce, focusing on the talent generated locally at our universities is the most cost-effective, highest-yielding investment we could make in talent attraction/retention, and there is room for improvement. According to data from the Martin Prosperity Institute/City Lab (2016), New Orleans ranks among the worst metro areas for retaining local university graduates, at a rate of 46.4%. 504ward helps New Orleans take on this challenge by working with career services centers to educate our local university students about career opportunities in New Orleans and connect them to the 504ward network.

Attracting Home “New Orleanians at Heart”

Though New Orleans’ talent pool is deeper than it has been in decades, in order to compete with larger, more economically diverse cities, our local employers need even more access to the nation’s top talent. The next low-hanging fruit is people who already know and love New Orleans, especially those waiting for the right opportunity to move home. 504ward is bridging this gap by targeting all young professionals who are “New Orleanians at heart.” This includes New Orleans natives living away, as well as anyone who spent time in the city visiting friends or family, studying at a local university, or working.

Leading up to New Orleans’ Tricentennial, our “digital care package” emails share engaging opportunities to “be a local with us wherever you are” and connect with opportunities in town.

Our “New Orleanians at heart” outreach culminates each year with the centerpiece of our strategy, NOLA MADE, a Black Friday job fair that reconnects young professionals with career opportunities in the city and a holiday shopping marketplace featuring locally made goods.

If the past 10 years are any indicator, with a highly-talented and passionate workforce fueling our economy, there’s no telling where we’ll go in the next 10, 100 and 300 years. We’ll be in that number, and hope you will too.

504ward, economic development, new orleans


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