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.