Economic Development: A Love Story

The Seattle Times this morning has a blog post on the revelation that the big news about Facebook’s new Seattle office was driven in part by love:

The story begins with Ari Steinberg, a Facebook engineering manager, and his wife, Daniela Witten, a Stanford grad student. When Witten began looking for a job teaching biostatistics, the couple decided to think about places where Facebook could someday open an office. Steinberg was going to follow Witten, thinking he could work remotely for a while. That was a possibility in Seattle, after Witten ended up landing a job this year as an assistant professor at the University of Washington. Then the company decided there was a bigger opportunity.

Absolutely a great story.  Except that it’s totally not unique.

This kind of thing happens all the time, because – particularly in this economy – two income couples have to worry about both getting a job. You hear about this a lot in biotech: when local companies are trying to recruit top scientists, many of them have spouses that are also scientists and the recruits want to know if their spouse can find a job as well. (Why are there so many scientists that marry each other? Because of the chemistry! Ba dum bum.)

So what does that mean for talent attraction and retention? It’s all about opportunity. Which is no surprise, if you read our recent report on talent that was prepared for last year’s International Benchmarking Consortium. The findings of that study were that the number one driver of highly educated people in determining where they wanted to live was whether or not they could get a job there. And if you need a good sized industry to ensure jobs for the top folks, you need a dynamic industry to bring couples to town. I’ll also make a very unsubstantiated guess: if you can attract and employ highly educated couples, they are more likely to stay in the region and set up roots than attracting either single people or couples where only one of the spouses is in a high demand field (I could be totally wrong about this…anyone have data?).

One more interesting implication of the Facebook story, which is a little different than the biotech example. In this case, the wife was in a slightly different field than the husband (although I’m sure there are tech companies that employ biostatisticians). Which means that our economic development agencies need to really be coordinated with a variety of top employers. I’m not saying that the UW should just hire every spouse of a social media developer. I am saying that, although we have a very coordinated system for attracting companies (linking policy and real estate and economic development), we don’t have as much of a centralized coordinating function for attracting talent. The latter happens mostly on a company-by-company basis, with some help from trade associations and others. It would be interesting to see how we could better link high demand job opportunities throughout a variety of fields, such that we could present a more comprehensive and compelling case to top talent from around the globe.

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