Nurturing Baltimore's best

Baltimore can attract young professionals but can it keep them here?

Bill King, in his recent commentary, "Baltimore's proximity to D.C.: economic help or drain?" (Sept. 8), makes a case for Washington's magnetic pull on the careers of talented young Baltimoreans and would-be Baltimoreans. Mr. King is correct that fostering talent is vital to Baltimore's future, but his argument that we must actively recruit in the fields of law and policy obscures the fact that Baltimore is already attracting an outsized share of talented professionals and, more importantly, distracts from our true challenge of retaining and developing that talent into our city's next generation of leaders.

Let's start with the numbers: Mr. King argues that Maryland's law schools funnel students to D.C. at disproportionately high rates. In reality, far more stay here. Out of the 610 law graduates from the University of Maryland and University of Baltimore last year, only 44 are employed in the District compared to 414 employed in Maryland. At least in terms of young legal professionals, the so-called "brain drain" barely qualifies as a trickle.

The bigger reality across all fields is that despite Washington's supposed vise-grip on regional college graduates, Baltimore consistently ranks within the top 10 destinations in the country for that coveted demographic of career starters. If Washington D.C. is an effective talent magnet because of its high salaries and competitive job markets, Baltimore is a similarly alluring hub, for reasons ranging from its significantly lower cost of living to its easier access to employment.

The truth is that Baltimore is not Washington, nor should it aspire to be. In 2015, Baltimore is a front line of social change in America in a way that D.C. and most other cities are not. We have a different set of challenges, a unique collection of assets and if we try to evaluate ourselves on any other city's terms, we have already lost.

If we have learned anything from local models like Baltimore Corps and the Baltimore chapters of Teach for America and Venture for America, it is that Baltimore has a growing infrastructure capable of attracting the nation's brightest young professionals. More than that, from educators to entrepreneurs, to lawyers, organizers and beyond, Baltimore is showing an expanding ability to attract the right talent — the people excited about dedicating their careers to solving entrenched social problems.

Baltimore should embrace its unique identity as a place that attracts brilliant minds and big hearts to solve some of the hardest challenges of our time. We should also own that Millennials — not only the largest generational cohort in American history, but also one of the most purpose-driven — are moving to Baltimore and many have the ambition to make the city their home.

As a city, we should embrace their hope as our challenge. While Baltimore attracts talent exceptionally well, we have been poor at retaining it. As Mr. King notes, retention is incentivized not only by career opportunities, but also by better schools, dependable infrastructure, low crime rates and so on. Yet the first step in addressing our true problems is not reclaiming talent from Washington. The first step is capitalizing on the substantial assets we already have by retaining, developing and connecting the immense talent we already possess.

This important work begins with investing in strong leadership. From the grassroots to the heads of several key institutions, we have many examples of world-class leadership in Baltimore. Consider Health Commissioner Leana Wen, who in nine months has transformed America's longest continuously running City Health Department into one of the most dynamic public health institutions in the nation. Dr. Wen has accomplished this incredible task by building her team with ambitious, talented people who want to work in the places dedicated to solving the most important problems.

No question, Baltimore has a long way to go and our current and future leaders must continue to innovate to solve the city's difficult challenges. But we must first agree our struggle is not to attract talent, because we already do. Rather, as we think about Baltimore's identity in the region, we should learn from Dr. Wen and the countless other mission-driven organizations throughout Baltimore that understand our city's real objective: continue finding the foundation builders, but also build new inroads for them to plant roots and make the leap to become the city's next generation of leaders.

Fagan Harris, Baltimore

The writer is the CEO of Baltimore Corps, a nonprofit organization that recruits, connects, develops and retains Baltimore's next generation talent.

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