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The Local Economy Revolution

Talent & Uniqueness

See the previous section of The Local Economy Revolution: Design Arrogance

Today, Della Rucker looks at the challenges communities face in dealing with talent, and the importance of uniqueness.

Talent Talent Talent


Shut up about the damn talent already …

You probably have to live in a small hole in the ground to not know that economic opportunity today is All About Talent. All the growing business types — from advanced technology to geriatric care, from research and development to running a gift shop where you don’t lose your shirt because your employees suck — it all comes back to Talent. Different skills, different education levels. Doesn’t matter.

Talent Talent Talent

Illustration by Marc Hughes for PlannersWeb showing talent contest

… the entire night’s wide-ranging conversation came back again and again to the question of retaining and attracting individuals with talent.

I moderated a public forum on economic competitiveness for a local agency last year. Among seven economic development professionals and a large audience, the entire night’s wide-ranging conversation came back again and again to the question of retaining and attracting individuals with talent.

It didn’t matter if we were talking about scientists or machinists: talent was the scarce and precious resource, like water supply or electricity or rail lines might have been in another era. That meant that we spent as much time talking about housing and sidewalks and education and trails as we did about industries and finance. The purpose of all that supposedly non-economic development stuff: attract and retain the talent.

My highly expert estimate: there are 8 zillion books and articles out there about how businesses need Talent, why they can’t find Talent, how to hire Talent, where the Talent is hiding, what the Talent wants.

There’s no question that talent, that people with skills and capability, are the drivers of economies. That’s probably always been the case to some degree, it’s just a lot more so now.

But here’s the big, largely unexamined challenges:

  • Talent is picky, really picky. Talent wants a custom fit to its interests and preferred lifestyle, and what Talent actually means by “interests and preferred lifestyle” is about as varied and complicated and sometimes contradictory, as … well, as people. And way more picky and complicated than a factory building. What a pain in the ass.
  • Not all of our residents are Talent. A lot of them are definite Non-Talent. Where do they fit in?
  • Some subsets of Talent might not want anything, anything to do with what we are trying to offer. Which means that there’s no point in trying to win them over. We’re all in the niche business now.

That Which Makes You Unique Makes You Valuable

My biggest difficulty in Christmas shopping … is trying to find something that will be unique and valuable for the person who will get it.

My biggest difficulty in Christmas shopping (other than trying to remember which Lego set the younger kid said was the really wonderful one, and which one was lame), is trying to find something that will be unique and valuable for the person who will get it.

To be sure, I don’t strive for that for everyone — the gift for Great Aunt Sophie doesn’t always get the same level of thought as others — but to the extent that I can, for the people who really matter to me, I am looking for something that is

  • different from what they will get from anyone else,
  • different from what they already have, and
  • something that they will value.

So for my cool sister-in-law, I am looking for a funky necklace made out of natural materials. For my niece, I am looking for an outfit that captures her free spirit and will look great on her. For my kids… well, you know, we get a list, most of which is incomprehensible to me anyways.


But here’s the kicker: I will probably be willing to pay at least a little bit more for the perfect funky necklace or free-spirit outfit than I would for a typical string of beads or a boring t-shirt and pants. And because that’s what I am looking for, I am also more likely to stray from the beaten path and go shopping somewhere other than Target.

The germ of the thought is this: that which makes a place unique makes it more valuable to the people who want it. And since we harp constantly on the need to win and retain Talent, becoming valuable to at least some subset of that Talent matter more than ever.

Talent will typically value your community more, care about it more, invest in it more — if the experience you offer differs in a valuable way from what they can get somewhere else.

A lot of times it’s easy to see our communities as commodities, like the plastic toys on a shelf in a big store. If I can get the same transforming thingamabob at Big Box A vs. Big Box B, then I will probably buy it where it’s cheapest.

Illustration by Marc Hughes for PlannersWeb - communities r us shopping store

That’s the general retail Race to the Bottom — if there is nothing that makes your store different other than price, then you will win or lose based on how cheap you are. Any other factors go out the window.

But if you are the only store that carries the way cool thingamabob, then you not only win the sale, but you don’t have to charge the rock-bottom price, right?

If we regard our communities as commodities, then the only way that we attract new businesses … is if we make ourselves the lowest-price option.

It’s the same with our communities. If we regard them — and promote them — as commodities, then the only way that we attract new businesses or people — or keep the people and businesses that have the wherewithal to go elsewhere (typically, that’s our Talent) — is if we make ourselves the lowest-price option. That is what economic development incentives were about in the first place — making the costs of a location lower, or at least even with, the competition.

Think about it: If my community sales pitch is that “we are within 600 miles of 75% of the United States,” and hundreds of other communities can make the same claim, then what reason does any Talented entrepreneur or business operator have to come to my community — unless I am the cheapest?

And when I am no longer the cheapest, what reason do they have to stay?

When it comes to creating a Wise Economy, our communities’ ability to succeed long-term depends on our ability to capitalize on and communicate those features that make our community unique, and therefore valuable.

It’s the unique elements — the ones that make your community different … that will make you more valuable to someone than any incentive you can offer.

There are a lot of elements of any community that are nice but numbingly common — “we have a great work ethic,” “we have rail service,” etc. But it’s the unique elements — the ones that make your community different, the ones that cannot be replicated by someone else — that will make you more valuable to someone than any incentive you can offer.

If you are not playing to your uniqueness, then you are joining the Grand Caravan of Commodities on the Race to the Bottom.

A couple of important words of warning, though.

Warning: Reality Check Ahead signFirst, what is unique and valuable to one person is a white elephant to another. If you establish yourself as something unique, you become like a gourmet cheese — people will either pay more for your one-of-a-kind taste and texture, or they will drop you back on the shelf when they get a whiff of you. If your downtown is renowned as the Victorian Antiques Capital of Your State, a lot of people would consider that a point in favor of moving there. I myself, on the other hand, will probably look somewhere else

Second, fake uniqueness will hurt you worse in the long run than being a commodity. There’s a refrain/long Twitter hashtag that I’ll throw out in a later chapter: “#LookWhatYouCantGetAwayWithAnymore.” Trust me on that one for now.

Third, remember that your community has many aspects that make it unique, and it is that entire package, not just one Claim to Fame, that Talent will be looking for. And different elements will appeal to different Talent groups. And that’s a good thing. Relying on one Talent group would be like relying on one industry. Not the most prudent idea.

For more on the “economics of uniqueness, see “What’s the Market Telling Us?

Coming next: Some Animals Are More Equal than Others