Fighting Perception

Memphis human resources directors sell the city to potential new employees.

Johnel Evans, director of HR at Medtronic, and Dana Bottenfield, director of HR at St. Jude

photographs by Larry Kuzniewski

The Challenge
Crime, politics, education, lack of job opportunities for spouses, tight community. So goes the list of negative perceptions held by some high-skilled candidates considering jobs in Memphis. When looking at the city from the outside, many sources seem to tell a tale of poverty and desperation. The problems are the real cost of history: slavery and segregation, poverty, and the resulting storm of bad statistics. Memphis faces real challenges that shape its reputation; sometimes justifiably, sometimes not.
Human resources professionals are fulfilling one of the most important functions in preserving its civic reality: bringing high-skilled workers to live and work in Memphis.
“Potential recruits will search the Internet and are very familiar with Memphis,” says Johnel Evans, Human Resources Director and Inclusion Leader at Medtronic Spine and Biologics. “Unfortunately, they read the same headlines as we do. These can range from crime statistics to education issues and local government stories, which at times are not a positive reflection about Memphis.”
Based on the numbers, the deck can seem stacked against Memphis. The city has a diminishing taxable population and an increasing financial burden.
Population has fallen consistently for two decades. From 1990 to 2000, Memphis proper lost 28.5 percent of its white population, according to the Greater Memphis Chamber. That population was the heart of Memphis’ taxable, working middle class. For any city, this sets up a financial disaster. But five of the top 10 employers in Greater Memphis are government entities, according to the chamber’s Data Center.
With the potential for Morgan Keegan’s liquidation looming large, the need for new white-collar jobs in Memphis is critical.
Given the tax structure, the best revenue is derived from new sources. Tourists pay a sales tax on nearly everything they do. But getting someone to move to Memphis to live and work is the best card this river town can play.

The Message
Human resources professionals
have to work face-to-face with new employees as they make huge decisions  aboutmoving and choosing schools, while facing often-unflattering perceptions of Memphis. Fortunately, some positive truths are on the side of HR directors.
“There are a lot of positives about Memphis that we can share,” Evans says.
Dana Bottenfield, Director of HRIS (Human Resource Information System), Employment, and Immigration for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, agrees.
“Memphis is a good place to live,” Bottenfield says. “You can get a lot of house for your money. We have many entertainment choices, and an active arts community. I find it easy to be a cheerleader for Memphis because I am one of the people who loves our city.”
Anyone who has been to Shelby Farms Park or the Greenline can tell you that Memphis is a progressive and beautiful place to live. But job candidates carry a wide range of needs. Finding a fit in Memphis is key.
“Job candidates are not a monolithic group,” Bottenfield says. “You must tailor your conversation to the person and his or her particular situation. Where does  he live now? Single or married? Interests?
“If the person is young and single, I talk about downtown and Midtown and the vibrant local music community,” she continues. “If the person is married with kids, I talk about the Memphis Zoo, Shelby Farms Park, Playhouse on the Square, farmers markets, and Ballet Memphis. The Memphis Grizzlies, University of Memphis Tiger basketball, and Beale Street are things I discuss with all of our candidates.”
“We tell our candidates that there are good schools in Memphis and Shelby County,” Bottenfield continues. “Many of our elementary, middle, and high schools are quality schools, and they are in the neighborhoods where our candidates often target to live. Catholic schools in Memphis are also good, and there is a vast array of quality private schools from which to choose. The opportunity for a quality education in Memphis does exist for their children.”
The company itself can be enough enticement to a potential Memphian. Evans says candidates are attracted to Medtronic as an employer and recognize Memphis’ “emergence as a center of biotechnology.”

The Benefits
When high-skilled workers
move to Memphis, it’s not all spend-and-tax. They get involved in addressing the community’s biggest problems.
“We partner with the Leadership Academy,” Evans says. “Our employees sit on area boards for civic and educational organizations. At Medtronic we have 12 Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) that we suggest new hires join. The goal of ERGs is to integrate inclusion, diversity, and engagement into the fiber of our organization. ERGs provide a network for employees with common interests to aid in onboarding of new employees and to encourage retention. The ERGs focus on development via career workshops, leadership series, networking opportunities, and community service.”

The Homework
What could Memphis do bet-
ter? Medtronic’s Evans says Memphis has work to do, but that it’s on the right track.
“Continue to draw more industry to Memphis,” Evans says. “This will make the city more attractive for the types of professionals we seek. Continue to put more effort into improving communities and crime statistics. Do more to feature what’s good in Memphis. We have beautiful parks and playgrounds across the city and county. This could be a draw for families.”

The Results
Memphis is working for many
transplants. Including the faculty, staff, and postdoctoral fellows, St. Jude has about 3,600 employees. “Approximately 20-25 percent of the current workforce relocated to Memphis to take a position at St. Jude,” Bottenfield says.
At International Paper, headquartered in Memphis, about 50 percent of the salariedstaff has been relocated to the city. That figure includes Thomas Ryan.  
“My wife and two kids moved from Seattle to Memphis 15 months ago,” Ryan says. “The job of course was the main reason for the move, but the low cost of housing, the short commute time, and the climate played a big part in our decision.”
Ryan is a Senior Manager for Public Relations and Employee Communications at International Paper. The newcomer has become the preacher. The power of the converted.
So here’s hope for Memphis.  •

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