Young professionals group works to attract and retain talent to Salt Lake City — not always an easy task with Utah’s perceived reputation

When Nchopia Nwokoma moved to Utah four years ago for her dream job, she didn’t plan to stay long.

The reason? Well, Utah.

It didn’t sound like the most thrilling place for a young person, especially one leaving behind Houston’s vibrant social scene. The 30-year-old told herself she would work here for a year, gain a little experience and move on.

“But I tend to be very extroverted, so I’m like, ‘How can I meet people while I’m here?’” she said.

Nwokoma figured she could join a “young professionals” group, the social and networking clubs that exist in many big American cities. But she couldn’t find any. So in 2014, she started her own: Young Professionals Salt Lake City. She listed it on meetup.com and quickly realized there were hundreds of people like her.

Today, the nonprofit group has nearly 3,000 members, many of them outsiders who were recruited for work here but hesitated to come because they didn’t know people or were unsure what the state’s reputation with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was all about.

Utah companies now often turn to the the group for help reassuring prospective employees about the culture, Nwokoma said. Then, they introduce the new transplants to people via social and networking events.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Cindy Chen, an employee with Spy Hop Productions shares her ideas with other members at Young Professionals Salt Lake City's "Idea Olympics" Saturday, December 9 2017, to prioritize YPSLC's goals for 2018 as well as give suggestions for events and activities.

“Finding local talent in Utah for specific skill sets is really tough,” said Gaurav Valani, 34, who is head of talent for Overstock.com and moved about eight months ago from Santa Monica, Calif. “But we do have a lot of top tech companies, a lot of startups here, and I think the more we make people aware of that, the more people will just flock [to Utah].”

On Saturday, Nwokoma, Valani and about 25 other members met at Impact Hub in downtown for what was billed as the “Idea Olympics” — a brainstorming session on how to expand the group’s mission and attract more young, educated workers to the city. Focus areas include volunteering, civic engagement events (the group organized a mayoral debate two years ago), and offering some “personal development” classes to members on topics like homebuying and investing.

Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams — a candidate for Utah’s 4th Congressional District in 2018 — spoke to the group Saturday. He said the county recently completed a survey of local businesses, which reported a number of hiring challenges.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams speaks to Young Professionals Salt Lake City's "Idea Olympics" Saturday, December 9 2017, to prioritize YPSLC's goals for 2018 as well as give suggestions for events and activities.

“One of the things I heard consistently from almost every company is they cannot find employees — which is great news for you, because you’re a hot commodity in the market,” he said, pointing out the county’s 3 percent unemployment rate.

The percentage of college-educated young people ages 25 to 34 making up the total Salt Lake City population has been on the upswing, research suggests. A 2014 study by City Observatory, a think tank, said Salt Lake City’s young and educated people had surged from 4.2 percent to 5.3 percent of the overall population between 2000 and 2012, placing it in the same vicinity as Philadelphia, Kansas City and Los Angeles.

But companies still face problems attracting young, outside talent — especially in fields related to engineering and technology, McAdams said. One local company told county surveyors: “Our recruiters have reached out to software engineers as far away as Costa Rica.”

McAdams said part of the problem likely is an outside perception of the state that doesn’t “align with the reality.” But he said once jobseekers visit, they’re often sold.

“There are a lot of misconceptions and stigma tied to Utah with the Mormon community being as huge as it is,” Valani explained. “And then maybe, there’s a lack of awareness — I don’t think Utah does a great job yet of showing all the cool reasons you would want to be here.”

According to Valani, those reasons include access to the outdoors, a decent nightlife scene and a cost of living that is still lower than coastal cities with booming tech economies. He sees some parallels with Seattle, circa 2006, when rent was still relatively affordable and tech companies were only beginning to arrive.

“I felt like this place was the underdog, and I liked being part of the growth,” he said.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Liz Marshall talks with Sam Greenberg, Vice President of Programing at Young Professionals Salt Lake City's "Idea Olympics" Saturday, December 9 2017. Young Professionals Salt Lake City met to prioritize YPSLC's goals for 2018 as well as give suggestions for events and activities.

These days, Nwokoma is basically a saleswoman for Salt Lake City. She lives in downtown and works as director of culture for a logistics company. Despite her early reservations about the state, she said she doesn’t plan to leave anytime soon.

People often ask her whether there are bars here, whether there’s much shopping. They sometimes worry there won’t be anything to do if they don’t enjoy the outdoors, Nwokoma said.

“And I’m like, ‘Listen, I am the most opposite Utah person ever. I’m an African-American female, I’m not LDS, I don’t do the outdoors. And if I love it here? I promise you anybody can love it here.’”