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Help wanted: Sonoma County struggles to recruit young professionals

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Sonoma County is a well-known destination for those on vacation. It’s also a prized spot to settle down for retirees.

But for young professionals, not so much.

Only a quarter of the county’s workforce is classified as young professionals between the ages 25 of 44, lagging behind the greater Bay Area at 29 percent and the state, at 28 percent, according to a new report issued by the Sonoma County Economic Development Board.

Another troubling, related figure for local officials: The growth in young professionals from 2011 to 2016 was 4 percent, less than national areas of comparable size such as Spokane County, Washington, which had 11 percent growth during the same time period, and Ada County (Boise), Idaho, with 7 percent growth.

“We need to be intentional about our workforce,” said Ben Stone, executive director of the Economic Development Board. “We can’t take for granted we have a new crop of kids coming along.”

The issue could usher in economic problems for the county as more baby boomers retire every year. A decade ago, Sonoma County had approximately five working-age adults — ages 15 to 64 — for every senior, according to the Economic Development Board. In 2018, the ratio is 3-to-1. In 2028, it will be 2-to-1 if trends continue, reducing enrollment at primary and secondary schools, diminishing tax revenue for local governments and shrinking the workforce for an economy dependent on the service-sector jobs.

Plenty of millennials and Generation X workers visit and are familiar with Sonoma County. They stand in line for hours each February to taste Pliny the Younger at the Russian River Brewing Co., kayak the Russian River or hike the Kortum Trail along the Sonoma Coast. They just don’t think as much about living here, though some of the appeal is obvious.

“There’s ton of natural beauty … there’s a really good community. There is a lot of opportunities attractive to young professionals,” said Mia Bowler, an associate attorney at the Friedmann Goldberg’s Santa Rosa office and chairwoman of the Young Professionals Network for the Santa Rosa Metro Chamber of Commerce.

Bowler, 30, who grew up in Healdsburg and went to law school in Virginia at the College of William & Mary, said she would like to see as much marketing effort attracting younger workers to Sonoma County as there is attracting tourists. She noted many young Bay Area tech workers may not realize the county is home to such large employers in their sector as Keysight Technologies, Viavi Solutions and Medtronic, as well as smaller firms.

Young leaders exist in the county across the public and private sector, and several — Santa Rosa Vice Mayor Chris Rogers, Sonoma County Supervisor James Gore and Peter Rumble, the new chief executive officer for the Santa Rosa Metro Chamber — are taking a greater advocacy role in trying to make the area more attractive to younger workers.

Those leaders have been buoyed by the reunified Old Courthouse Square in Santa Rosa, which has boosted downtown vitality, and the debut of the Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit line, with a planned corresponding bike path extending to the Larkspur Ferry. Mass transit and walkable neighborhoods are two priorities for many younger workers, as shown by the migration of many of them to areas of San Francisco with such amenities.

“We’re not going to get everybody. Some are city people. That’s not necessarily what we are going to get,” Bowler said. “But we could give people who are looking for the lifestyle, a very fulfilled career and to be involved with the community.”

Not surprisingly, affordable housing is the main concern, especially as the median single-family home price in Sonoma County rose in April to $685,000 — far below San Francisco and Seattle, but more than Spokane and Boise.

Aaron Friedman, the 38-year-old owner of Signarama, a Santa Rosa banner and sign shop, said he recently lost an employee who moved to Colorado because it was more affordable to live there. He noted that in the aftermath of the October wildfires, it is hard to find a two-bedroom apartment for less than $2,000 a month in the county.

Signarama employs 10 people. Friedman said if he had another three or four workers, he could double his revenue. But he cannot pass along wage hikes to his customers as they could opt to go elsewhere for a lower price, especially to online outlets. Smaller employers are concerned their workers could be siphoned away as a result of the demand for construction jobs as part of the rebuild, he said.

“It’s still hard to compete with $25 an hour,” Friedman said of construction wages. “I just think it’s a tough situation all around for a small business.”

Chris Denny, the 36-year-old founder of The Engine is Red, a Santa Rosa design and branding firm, is a little more bullish. He employs nine people locally and has opened a satellite office in Minneapolis — a hub for his industry — with three full-time workers and contract workers.

The Engine is Red downtown office has a young, modern feel, with exposed ceilings, an open floor plan and snacks such as breakfast cereal and kombucha. Inc. magazine ranked it last year at 3,118 in its 5,000 fastest- growing private firms.

“We can’t hire enough talent here in Santa Rosa to support our revenue,” Denny said of his firm, which was founded a decade ago. “We had to learn how to get good at remote (working).”

There are challenges with housing, he admitted, but area leaders should place a greater focus in creating more densely packed living environments rather than suburban sprawl. Economic expansion should be explored as well, he said, building industries beyond food and wine, including ventures in the outdoors industry, cannabis and the wellness and performance medicine industry.

“I think we are doing surprisingly well in some areas. But in some others, I don’t think we are quite right there,” Denny said. “I think that’s what’s preventing that critical mass to make this a really attractive place.”

One priority should be concentrating growth along the SMART corridor, especially connecting residents who live within a mile of a station so they can use the system at a greater rate, Denny said. SMART weekly ridership averaged 14,000 commuters in 2017, its first months in operation. That figure was below the agency’s projection of 15,600.

“Think of all the great opportunities we can have,” he said. “If you had a tight, every-5- minute bus running from two to three downtown neighborhoods and connecting to the train on schedule, that would up it. Right now, we don’t have enough people living down here for it to make sense yet.”

Education also will play a crucial role, as will keeping Santa Rosa Junior College and Sonoma State University graduates in the area. Two-thirds of SSU students leave Sonoma County after obtaining their diplomas, according to one survey.

Stone said local officials would like to reduce that to 50 percent by 2023.

“I’m optimistic. I think this is one of the greatest places to live,” said Denny, who moved to the area at age 23. “I spent a lot of time in a lot of states and I love it here.”