San Diego’s Innovation Economy, and What it Takes to Recruit “The Young and Restless”

As the chief operating officer of the San Diego Regional Economic Development Corp. (EDC), Lauree Sahba says, “Our region’s future as a technology center of excellence depends on our ability to attract and retain the next generation of innovators and young talent.”

Yet Sahba frets that the renowned research institutions and balmy weather that drew the last generation of entrepreneurs to San Diego in the 1970s and ’80s may no longer be enough. The demographics are changing for a highly prized segment of the exponential economy—the well-educated, hard-working, and entrepreneurial adults who are 25 to 34 years old.

Portland economist Joe Cortright calls them “the young and the restless.” With their college and graduate degrees mostly behind them, the young and the restless are in their prime years of mobility. They have the greatest freedom to relocate. But Cortright says the suburban amenities that once made San Diego a kind of idyllic destination a few decades ago are not what the newest crop of the best and brightest are looking for nowadays. And a dream job offer isn’t necessarily enough to make them move either.

Joe Cortright

As an advisor to CEOs for Cities and president of Portland-based Impresa Consulting, Cortright has studied the issue extensively, including a 2005 study looking at the cities where young and talented people are working and why. He sees many correlations between cities that attract young talent and a region’s overall economic prosperity, which he calls “Qwertynomics” because such economies are linked to the young knowledge workers who type on Qwerty keyboards.

“Young adults are under no illusions that they’re going to work at one company for their entire career,” Cortright told me during a recent visit to San Diego, where he met with more than 100 local business and community leaders to discuss his work, and what it takes to recruit young talent these days. His visit was arranged by the EDC and the Equinox Center, a nonprofit group in Encinitas, CA, that is focused on balancing the environment and the economy, and on improving the quality of life in San Diego. (Personal disclosure: I’ve been volunteering occasionaly at the Equinox Center.)

Today, settling into the right kind of place is at the top of their list of priorities, Cortright says. Then they look for work. “This age group tends to be really interested in quality of life, and what I call the new urbanist bullet points,” Cortright says. They realize that they won’t hold one job for the rest of their lives, so these young workers want to … Next Page »

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Bruce V. Bigelow is the editor of Xconomy San Diego. You can e-mail him at or call (619) 669-8788 Follow @bvbigelow

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