Blair Forlaw, VP of Regional Talent Strategy in St. Louis

Blair Forlaw, interim vice president for regional talent strategy for the St. Louis Regional Chamber and Growth Association, has a message for competing communities: Look out! The region's aggressive goals for increasing college attainment in the St. Louis MSA are led by businesses, driven by data, and aim to make St. Louis a more competitive place. 

She spoke with Emily Cole of the Civic Commons about data sharing and an emerging system of regional talent analytics that will help lots of disparate organizations achieve what one organization working alone never could.

Blair Forlaw: Okay, well, my name is Blair Forlaw and I am the interim Vice President for Regional Talent Strategy for the St. Louis Regional Chamber and Growth Association. This is the economic development organization for the sixteen county metropolitan area, eight counties in Missouri and eight in Southwestern Illinois. We have a total population of about 2.8 million people -- that makes us the nineteenth-largest metro area in the United States. 
Civic Commons: Let's talk a little about your business led effort -- how that began and how is it going now? How long perhaps that your organization has been in existence? As well just kind of how that got rolling?
BF: Well, the St.Louis RCGA has been around so long that they have an art deco sign in the lobby from the early days, so this was the regional chamber that brought business leaders together decades and decades ago. The effort that I am helping organize is through the regional economic development arm of the organization, which is really kind of cool in that we came to the importance of college completion as a way of strengthening the region's competitive advantage when competing with other communities -- sorry, other communities -- for businesses and for jobs. We know that nowadays, one of the most important things that companies look for when they're considering relocating is the quality of the workforce, and they gauge the workforce by the percentage of the population with college degrees. So we're really focused on that one metric, which the Census Bureau puts out every year through the American Community Survey, which is the percentage of the population age 25 and older with college degrees.
Our effort is led by an 18-member talent council -- these are all business people who are for the most part senior HR leaders and corporations that are part of the RCGA and a few other C-level folks. They like to say our effort is business-led and data driven. A lot of numbers -- they love spreadsheets -- most of our meetings are focused on spreadsheets and how are we doing on the numbers.
CC: How are some of the ways you really track the data that you're talking about and the spreadsheets? Have you as an organization tracked all of this on your own, or have you worked with local consulting agencies that are colleges or universities to really keep those metrics up to date? I know so many cities across the country have really different ways of approaching data.
BF: I'm really glad you ask about that because we're in the middle of putting together what I think is going to be the centerpiece of our effort in 2013, which is a system of regional talent analytics. The first thing that we did was, I believe I mentioned St. Louis ranks 19th in the nation in terms of population, but we rank fourteenth among the 20 largest metros in the region in terms of our percentage of our population with college degrees. We're doing well --  in other words we are over index in terms of college attainment.
Our goal is to move from number 14 to the top 10, so we've got it all spread out. We've got the forecast, we've got the numbers, we've got everything. We've figured out that in order to get from number 14 to being number 10 and currently number ten is Chicago -- I might note, look out Chicago -- in order to get to number 10 between now and the year 2025, we're going to need approximately 75,000 additional bachelor's and higher level degrees over what we might assume we would get just given natural increases, which every region is experiencing. So that works out to about 6,300 additional degrees per year. We're putting together now this regional system that would allow us to monitor our progress in terms of those 6,000-plus degrees, and we've also identified what are the different groups in our population where we would need to see improvements and degree attainment in order to achieve that big number.
This is where the other groups come in, because clearly it's not possible for any one organization to achieve results that size. So we've identified several groups -- for example, current high school students, current college students who might be at risk of not completing college, college students, young professionals who have graduated who might be leaving St. Louis to move to Cleveland or some other place -- we want to keep them in St. Louis.
We're also looking at working adults who are working for the companies that are part of our talent council. We are looking at folks who've lost their jobs who are motivated to go back to school to be more marketable. We're looking at Veterans as well. So we identified the groups that are currently working, and there are a number of them in St. Louis, and this is probably true in other places, who are focused on those specific student groups and we are convening the big table for all of these initiatives to come together and share a common set of metrics that we can use not only to see how we're improving over time but to monitor performance in terms of our own programs.
In terms of finding sources of data that would allow us to monitor progress, what we found is that our states of Missouri and Illinois are great sources of data, from the Departments of Higher Education and also the Divisions of Workforce and Development. We also are working a lot with Census data and we have conversations underway with Complete College America … We are very fortunate that both of our states, Missouri and Illinois, participate in Complete College America, so they're reporting data on an annual basis that will help us understand graduation rates, enrollment, persistence, and graduation by age groups. And then also as part of this big table that we're setting, we're inviting different programs in the area who are working with different groups to share with one another their programmatic input and what some of these outcomes are.
So to me that is really going to be exciting because our business leaders say that if you don't measure it, it doesn't matter … because it really matters to us, we really want to have a regional system that will allow us to measure.
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