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Selling Pittsburgh

Think it’s hard to recruit the best and brightest talent to Pittsburgh? Think again.

Candidates are consistently impressed with Pittsburgh, say Megan Misgalla and Christine Probert, owners of the relocation firm,Presenting Pittsburgh. If anyone has a good handle on how outsiders perceive our city, it’s people like Misgalla and Probert who show prospects around town and sell the city on a daily basis. “People see parks in the middle of the city, our cultural amenities, the fantastic architecture, the construction. It’s very exciting….People are wowed,” says Probert.

They know, for instance, when it comes to finding a new place to live, size isn’t everything but quality counts. “We’re not growing larger, but we’re growing smarter,” says Ellen Roth, president of the relocation consulting firm Getting to the Point. “The smartest people on the planet are moving to Pittsburgh.”

As one example, she points to UPMC, the largest academic medical center in the country, which is attracting the most brilliant and innovative people in medical research and health care to relocate to Pittsburgh. “Great talent is a magnet for more great talent,” Roth says.

Mark Kryder, Seagate’s chief technology officer, agrees. He recruits the world’s brightest Ph. D.s in data storage to work at its R&D facility and 80 to 85 percent of Seagate’s offers are accepted. Pittsburgh’s reasonable housing costs offer a “tremendous advantage” versus west coast companies, says Kryder.

John Thornburgh, executive recruiter for Witt/Kieffer, says, “Pittsburgh…turns into a real added-value once they see the cost of living, quality of life and opportunities in their profession.”

In 1999, Roth helped CEO Jeff Lipton relocate 65 senior executives to Pittsburgh when Nova Chemicals moved its corporate headquarters here from Canada. Lipton says his staff found Pittsburgh to be friendly and safe, and “the schools were better than they dreamed.” They also liked Pittsburgh’s excellent healthcare system and economical housing. “Now,” says Lipton, “it’s very hard to move them out of Pittsburgh.”

National press makes the case

While those who move to town are often dazzled by Pittsburgh’s many attractions, national media is catching on, too. Kiplinger’s Personal Finance Magazine just ranked Pittsburgh number nine on its 50 Smart Cities List. The ranking, published in the June issue, was based on a combination of housing prices, economic vitality and lifestyle factors such as public education, health care, the local arts scene and recreational facilities.

Ever humble, it’s the native Pittsburghers who are often the most critical of Pittsburgh, grumbling about the traffic, taxes and weather. But Probert says newcomers think the city’s commutes are short, love its affordable cost of living, and are amazed they can register their car for $36. Yes, Pittsburgh has many cloudy days, says Roth, but so do London and Seattle. And while some Americans think Pittsburgh is cold, “Canadians think they’ve moved south,” she says.

Where the growth is

Pittsburgh’s executive recruiters also have a good handle on growth areas in the region, such as healthcare and education, also known as “eds and meds”. They are “the driving forces behind our economy,” says Roth. Thornburgh agrees. “These two fields have the ability to withstand economic downturns, and are consistently growing. We’ve also built a critical mass in these fields,” he adds. “Beyond the first opportunity, candidates realize there’s a wealth of opportunities down the line.”

Alcoa and PNC are always active, says Misgalla, and retail is another strong growth segment. The acquisition of Gaylan’s by Dick’s Sporting Goods makes Dick’s the largest full-line sporting goods retailer in the country with revenue in excess of $2.6 billion. Specialty manufacturing is another Pittsburgh stronghold. Lipton says Nova Chemical’s fastest-growing manufacturing plant is in Monaca.

With Google, Seagate, Apple, Intel and Rand all opening local offices, Pittsburgh’s high tech segment is growing as well. Brown feels succession planning spells opportunity in Pittsburgh’s corporate ranks: “Fifty percent of senior leadership in Pittsburgh will retire in the next five years. More people are retiring than there are people to fill the slots.”

With all this opportunity, how do the professionals wow perspective candidates? By visiting Mt. Washington.

Roth’s website (www.getting-to-the-point.com) says, “U.S.A. Weekend magazine (May 16-18, 2003) ranked the view of Pittsburgh from Mt. Washington as the Number Two most beautiful spot in America.” When taking candidates on tours, Roth says she also includes the Strip District complete with a stop at the century-old Penn Mac, noted for its cheese and Italian products among others.

Shadyside always wows them,” says Probert. “We always do the city. It’s important for (newcomers) to see the core of our city—cultural, retail, sports stadiums, Strip and theater district.”

Brown says he loves to drive newcomers through the Fort Pitt tunnel, and watch them as the city suddenly spreads before them. “They leave here in awe,” he says.

The transformation of the downtown corridor continues to impress—first with new theaters and restaurants and now with downtown housing. Misgalla and Probert feel downtown retail will follow. “This very vibrant downtown center,” says Roth, “creates a halo effect for the region.”

Another success story? Lawrenceville, one of a number of emerging neighborhoods attracting artists and creative types.

The challenges

Are there obstacles to recruiting top level talent to Pittsburgh? “Fifteen years ago I could have given you a laundry list,” says Rick Brown, executive vice president and COO, of the executive recruiting firm O’Conner, O’Conner and Lordi, Inc. “Today, I don’t have much of a list to give you.”

“The biggest obstacle,” says Terence Brady, human resources vice president for teleproduction provider NEP Inc., is “the perception of Pittsburgh as a beat up old steel town.” Roth says it’s her job to “debunk the myth.” She talks to newcomers about Pittsburgh’s economic and environmental transformation. “Guide people,” she says, “and the city sells itself.”

Brady, who works with Presenting Pittsburgh when recruiting, says, “I’ve never had one person say they didn’t want to move here once they got here….The city really does have something for everyone.”

One major challenge is government redundancy which proves to be frustrating. “One hundred and twenty nine municipalities in one county is ridiculous,” says Brown. That kind of government fragmentation complicates the most basic things, like incorporating a company, he says. “It discourages companies from moving here.”

The city must improve its finances, offers Lipton. In Pittsburgh, there’s an attitude of “things have always been done this way,” say Misgalla and Probert. “It’s not young and it’s not diverse; people are disappointed by that.”

Nevertheless, Brown is encouraged overall. “The change in the economy will begin to attract young people,” he says. And he believes the city is taking the right steps to engage young people with new organizations such as PUMP. Companies are actively seeking diversity candidates in Pittsburgh, he adds.

The city’s a very welcoming, warm city,” says Lipton. “It’s a good place with good people and good costs.” And it gets better with the addition of new people. Thornburgh likes the “fresh perspective and fresh enthusiasm” new residents bring to Pittsburgh. Misgalla and Probert say new people in Pittsburgh create new energy because they mix things up. “These people tend to be the best ambassadors. They are so excited.”

Anne Lutz is a freelance writer whose last story for Pop City was on Seagate Technologies.


Exiting Fort Pitt tunnel onto the Fort Pitt bridge

"Recruitee" and view of Downtown from Mt. Washington

Ellen Roth

Shadyside scene on Walnut Street

all photos copyright © Jonathan Greene

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