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 was the editor of Xconomy San Diego from 2008 to 2018. Read more about his life and work here. Follow @bvbigelow

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

  1. Kevin Ball says:

    This article has a lot of important points, but I think it is important to note that there are areas of San Diego that do fit what young, talented people are looking for: Downtown, plus the uptown stretch of Hillcrest, North Park, and University Heights.

    These areas are walkable, have reasonable public transit, and the uptown areas in particular contain a wonderful mix of local shops and restaurants.

    The problem is that most of the tech office space in San Diego is up in North County, inaccessible by public transit and far from the areas where this generation wants to live.

    There are, however some promising trends.

    There has been a proliferation of new coworking spaces like the AI Center on Convoy, 3rdspace in University Heights, and the rumored new EvoNexus space downtown. And there are startups sprouting up in those spaces… a recent map of San Diego Startups by Bastos Ventures (see showed a strong cluster downtown.

    The tech meetup scene has also been booming; in the last 2 years the Tech Founders meetup group has at least doubled in size, the SD Ruby meetup group has gone from 1 meetup a month to 3, and new groups like the San Diego Javascript meetup group have gotten going. At all of these events, recruiters trying to hire outnumber available engineers many to one.

    There’s a flurry of positive activity… the question to me is how to sustain and accelerate it, and for that we’ll need more visibility outside of the region to attract more funding and get rid of that “two-step move” perception.