Blog: Sharon Carney

From Sharon Carney's perspective we're all in this together. A Special Project Director at the Michigan Suburbs Alliance, Sharon has been both politically and civically involved in Metro Detroit. She will be writing about her latest effort, the Millennial Mayors Congress and how SE Michigan can achieve greater regional collaboration.

Sharon Carney - Post 3: Detroit, the Land of Opportunity

In my experience, the talent retention/attraction conversation has a tendency to split into two camps: "It’s all about jobs" and "Place comes first." I struggled a bit between the jobs versus place debate until adopting a different theory.

Eric Robertson, the Chief Administrative Officer of Center City Commission in Memphis and founder of New Path, a political action committee, defines a "culture of opportunity" as

The beliefs, customs, practices, and behavior of a particular people that cultivate and reinforce a combination of favorable circumstances or situations, real or perceived.

Eric’s belief, which I now share, is that opportunity, or the perception that opportunity is exists, is the most influential factor drawing mobile young talent to cities. Therefore, those places where a "culture of opportunity" exists are going to be the winners in a knowledge economy. To me, this line of thinking bridges the disconnect between the jobs and place arguments.

Opportunity means different things to different people, Millennials included. For some it’s the ability to make an impact, to effect change. For others it’s a job. For some it’s a place that enables a particular lifestyle. Then there’s mobility—the ability to rise as a leader or to excel in your field.  The power of perceived opportunity is nothing new. It’s what drew (and still draws) millions of immigrants to America. It’s what sent pioneers to the West. It’s what brought millions of southerners to Detroit. It’s also the force that sent millions of GI’s sprawling into farmlands, fueling the suburbanization of America. While the results might not be ideal, the point to remember here is that opportunity  is a potent influence on human behavior.

Earlier this year when I was trying to decide my next career move, numerous people advised me to head to New York. If I had a dollar for every time I heard "There are so many more opportunities for you there," I probably wouldn’t be working anywhere; I’d be exploring South America. How many people think of Detroit as the land of opportunity?

I can think of a few right off the bat.

Meredith Mullan moved here in October from Phoenix and works as an enrollment counselor for the University of Phoenix at Macomb Community College. She’s meeting different kinds of students than she did in Phoenix; many are former auto workers looking for a new career. "The changing auto industry creates opportunity for change and reform," she said. "I can be a part of that here through education."

My friend and co-worker, Toni Moceri, is a 29-year-old Warren native who spent two years getting educated in Europe before returning to Detroit in 2007. She stayed because she perceived potential for leadership. Last week, she was sworn in to her first term on the Macomb County Commission.

And of course, we all know the success of Slow’s and Phil Cooley and countless others who found entrepreneurial opportunity in the form of available, affordable real estate.

Based on this "opportunity theory" I think the questions we should be considering in the talent attraction/retention conversation are these:

What kinds of opportunities does this region offer young people?  
How do we market and connect people to them?  
How can we create more?

The target market has to be a part of this process. I say "process" and not "discussion" because I think it’s time to start asking more of our young people than what they want. Let’s stop treating them simply as consumers and ask them to take a leadership role in making this region a place that draws talent.

Enter, Millennial Mayors Congress.

Here in southeast Michigan, I’m seeing young people making change in their communities, and I’m seeing established leaders beginning to consult the next generation. What I haven’t seen is a viable opportunity for the two to act as partners in achieving what I consider a shared goal—until the Millennial Mayors Congress.  Imagine the impact of this combination:  the vast experience and knowledge of government leaders paired with the fresh perspective and vision of the region’s next generation of leaders. Local governments make decisions every day that directly impact the nature of communities, both in the short and long term. With sense of place and quality of life playing increasingly influential roles in Millennials’ location decisions, it only makes sense that these decisions be informed by young perspectives.

The Millennial Mayors Congress aims to serve as a forum for this kind of intergenerational leadership. Within it, representatives will address social, environmental and economic issues important not only to talent concentration, but to the long-term prosperity and vitality of metro Detroit. Because the fact is, these objectives are closely intertwined and often overlapping. In the process, it creates a number of a range of new opportunities for young people: opportunities to make a meaningful impact, to take a leadership role in the region, to pioneer a new and innovative project, to learn first-hand from successful civic leaders, to gain access to a system that may not seem accessible, to shape the future of the place where they hope to spend many more years.

Our turnaround as a region depends on our willingness to see opportunities of all kinds as drivers of the new economy and offer a meaningful way for the continuum of leaders to tap into them. By letting the full breadth of talent we need in metro Detroit do the kind of work – be it entrepreneurial, industrial, social or political – that gives meaning to their lives, we remind the world that Detroit, too, is a land of opportunity.

Learn more about the opportunities for young people in the Millennial Mayors Congress at a visioning session tomorrow evening (Tuesday, December 16). Details at