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Navigating the New Talent Landscape at the 2023 Young, Smart, & Local Conference

A.I. generated image with the prompt, “Create an image to accompany a blog post entitled ‘talent is top of mind’”

In this moment of historic labor shortage, talent is at the top of everyones’ minds. Communities, employers, and workers are adjusting by enabling flexible leadership and working arrangements, embracing new tools like AI, and doubling down on place-based strategies that increase quality of life.

At the Young Smart & Local talent attraction and workforce development conference this November, we explored this new talent landscape over 3 days in New Orleans.

The future of work continues to evolve, with huge implications for both employers and communities.

The labor market today has changed, even beyond the post pandemic shuffle. White collar/professional work has become more flexible, despite the corporate push to "return to office." Blue collar employees from Amazon to UPS and the auto industry have flexed their collective bargaining power, winning better working conditions and wages, alongside high profile union battles in Hollywood for protections against automation and in favor of creative intellectual property rights.

Part of this can be attributed to the unprecedented labor shortage we find ourselves in – as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce estimates, “We are missing 1.7 million Americans from the workforce compared to February of 2020” – and workers are in the driver's seat for the time being, with employees gaining new benefits in addition to higher overall wages. Reuters reported in August 2023 that “Wages are now rising faster than inflation,” and the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that year-over-year average hourly wage increases are greater now at roughly 4 percent than the long term, pre-pandemic trend of 3 percent.

Because of these factors, both employers and communities now need creative strategies to attract and retain workers. 

The 2023 Young, Smart, and Local conference highlighted many novel ways cities, states, regions, and organizations are innovating to keep up. Below are three lessons learned from this year’s presenters. 

Innovative companies and organizations are leaning into their EQ, and reimagining the workplace to prioritize flexibility, psychological safety, and mentorship.

For those employers not able to consistently raise pay, there are plenty of non-wage-related perks they can offer, including cultivating a workplace that fosters psychological safety and inclusion, increased flexibility, and strong professional and personal development programs with continuous learning and opportunities for mentorship.

For example, at Young Smart and Local, Perry Sholes, president at Progressive HR Strategies, talked about boosting employee engagement by pairing senior and junior colleagues, to help prepare younger workers with the guidance and modeling needed after years of remote work and school. 

After all, work from home and hybrid models open new opportunities for advanced work-life balance, but also present challenges to fostering connections between teammates and providing effective onboarding. Companies that are thoughtful about approaching these essential culture-related tasks will succeed at attracting and retaining talent.

From Left to Right: Chris Wink,  Co-Founder and CEO at; Dominique Clarke, Director of Member and Alumni Experience at Tulsa Remote; Perry Sholes, President at Progressive HR Strategies. Photo courtesy of Young, Smart, & Local.

Communities are doubling down on place-based strategies that enhance quality of life and sense of belonging.

Cities and states are competing to attract and retain talent that local employers need, but mere marketing is not enough. One main theme of the Young, Smart, & Local conference was that “storytelling is key, but you have to have the goods to back it up.” In other words, many speakers highlighted the ways their regions are promoting themselves to prospective talent, but acknowledged that a truly high quality of life has to be the reality that those looking to relocate, return to, or stay in a region find when they arrive. 

Programs like Tulsa Remote, featured at the conference, demonstrate how investment in community-building can be as or more impactful than financial incentives alone. In addition to offering a $10,000 incentive for new movers to Tulsa, the program provides free memberships to co-working spaces and other places of interest, access to events to meet people with similar values, and other community-building perks. This program has shown remarkable success, with over 2,600 movers and a 76% retention rate since launching in 2018. 

Fourth Economy moderated a panel on Reconnecting Talent to Downtown, and fellow panelist Cathy Lin, Director of Research at the International Downtown Association, remarked that contrary to much recent commentary, downtowns are not dead, but do require a rethink. According to Downtowns Rebound, a report published by Center City District in Philadelphia, data from 26 of the nation’s cities show that residents have come back to downtowns at greater than pre-pandemic levels, while office workers have been much slower to return. Communities that are designing for residents will come out on top – what is good for them will also attract visitors, and perhaps a new iteration of office workers.

From left to right: Andrew Grossman, Director of Destination Development at Colorado Tourism Office; Cathy Lin, Director of Research at the International Downtown Association; Nicole Muise-Kielkucki, Director of Economic Innovation at Fourth Economy. Photo courtesy of Young, Smart, & Local.

In this time of immense change, we need to embrace new technologies like AI, and emerging economic opportunities 

Kevin Ferguson, VP for External Affairs and Membership at New Orleans and Company, highlighted that Gen Z – but really all of us – want jobs that help them make a positive impact, and advocated for regions to explore new economic opportunities like the transition to renewable energy to retain/attract workers with transferable skills. In Louisiana, for example, the state aims to install 5 GW of offshore wind by 2035, in part by reskilling local oil and gas crews to pivot to the manufacturing, installation, and maintenance of turbines in the Gulf. 

Finally, speakers at the closing keynote “AI’s Impact on the Future of Talent” shared their vision for the future of AI in the workforce. Workers and organizations that are open to learning how to integrate AI technologies into their workflows, to accelerate product innovation, inspire new ideas, and boost productivity will get ahead and have more time for truly meaningful work, while those who don't will struggle to compete. Employers can foster continued learning by encouraging their employees to learn these new tools and providing access to training. 

With the right focus on talent, communities can thrive in this new environment.


Many of our clients strive to create communities that are magnets for talent and develop strong organizations that succeed at keeping them local. If you’d like to explore how your community or organization can create an environment for talent attraction, get in touch! We’d love to work with you.


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