New report takes a look at Madison County’s young professionals

kickball.jpgHuntsville Young Professionals last weekend hosted a kickball tournament to benefit CureSearch for Children’s Cancer. (The Huntsville Times/Eric Schultz)

HUNTSVILLE, Alabama — When Madison County’s young professional population fell 6 percent between 1990 and 2000, the Arts Council, the Chamber of Commerce of Huntsville/Madison County and Committee of 100 commissioned a study to find out why.

The 2005 report had a list of recommendations for attracting and retaining 25- to 34-year-old professionals – from forming a young adult group to have an impact on Huntsville’s civic and social direction to developing corporate internships for college students and new graduates.

Those same three organizations joined forces again last fall, hiring the University of Alabama in Huntsville’s College of Business Administration Center for Management Economic Research for a progress report since the 2005 study.

The findings of the research were encouraging but there’s still room for improvement, said Jeff Thompson, interim director of the UAH center and the report’s principal investigator. “We’re never finished.”

Thompson discussed the findings tonight with a full auditorium at Huntsville’s Merrimack Hall.

The population of 25- to 34-year-olds in Madison County grew by 5,829 between 2000 and 2010, while the YP percentage of the total population actually dipped from 13.8 percent to 13.1 percent, the report showed.

“We’re now competitive again,” at the 13 percent level, Thompson said.

According to the report, efforts to attract and retain those professionals have “stabilized” that segment of the population and work force, as the 0.7 percent decline between 2000 and 2010 was significantly smaller than the 6.1 percent drop from 1990 and 2000.

However, the report suggested the aging of baby boomers will make it challenging to increase the young professional percentage of the population above 13.1 percent.

Opinions about the community now and progress made over the past decade were gathered through online surveys, interviews and focus groups between last November and February. There were 423 responses from a range of young professionals based on age, gender, race/ethnicity, involvement and income levels.

There were plenty of ideas for luring young people to the area.

A recurring theme in the suggestions was “maximize variety,” the report said. “One comment summarized it best, ‘Give us more things to do.’ “

When asked for one thing that would make the area more rewarding, people suggested more art and cultural activities, more dining choices and local independent restaurants, more entertainment and family activities and more recreational and shopping options.

Those surveyed also called for enriching Huntsville’s downtown so it’s more of a hub for culture/arts/restaurants/entertainment, moving the baseball stadium downtown and opening a world-class planetarium downtown.

Other recommendations included better public transportation network, more intimate concert venues, affordable housing for young professionals in the downtown area, improved availability for continuing education, more co-op and internship programs in both public and private entities and more assistance for would-be entrepreneurs to navigate the start-up process.

Opinions expressed about the community were “overwhelmingly positive,” Thompson said.

The common positive comments about the area – 314 in all – were: great for raising a family, low cost of living, good job and career opportunities, easy to be involved in community, friendly place to live, area has a small-town feel, housing is affordable, area is beautiful, there’s lots to do, the area is a safe place, there are abundant outdoor activities and it’s close to big cities.

The 54 negative comments focused on little to do, not for singles, poor nightlife, cliquish, need a degree for good job, apartment cost is high, bad traffic, hot summers and poor community planning.

Most of those surveyed said they’re employed in their field of choice, and more than half of the respondents expect their next job to be in the area.

Eighty-one percent were in the field of their education or training, 1 percent reported being underemployed in the field for which they prepared and 1 percent of respondents reported being unemployed at the end of 2011.

Among accomplishments over the years, Thompson said, are numerous opportunities for young professionals to network and be involved.

“No conversation on economic development occurs in this community” without a focus on young professionals’ involvement, said Dave Hargrove, chair of the Committee of 100 board of directors.

Some specific accomplishments listed: the launch of jobs website, increased intern and co-op positions in federal contracts, young professionals’ involvement on BRAC recruitment teams, the growth of Huntsville Young Professionals from 40 to more than 2,000 members, the formation of Emyrge Council as an umbrella for all YP organizations, a new Lowe Mill artists colony, Art Krewe and Downtown Forty-Seven events, more downtown outdoor dining and nightlife, new local breweries, the formation of Leadership Connect and Committee of 100 YP and the formation of First Fridays, which has 1,000 members.

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