TechRepublic’s Karen Roby spoke with Nelson Peacock, president and CEO of the Northwest Arkansas Council, about the area’s incentives to recruit people to the area. They were also joined by Caroline Hernandez, a project manager in the video game industry, who relocated to the area from California. The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.
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Karen Roby: Ten-thousand dollars, that was just one of the incentives that leaders within Northwest Arkansas Council was putting out there as part of an initiative to bring more remote workers to the area, specifically those in tech. Nelson, just talk a little bit about why you guys decided to put this initiative out there in an effort to attract some of these remote workers?
Nelson Peacock: We’ve had a really strong economy over the last 20 years, but we have deficiencies in our economy with respect to tech talent and how we kind of grow a new, innovative economy going forward. And so we spent a lot of time working to develop that talent here, which is very difficult, but also attracting that talent. And then in the wake of the pandemic, when we saw a lot of people leaving the coast and kind of re-evaluating their life situation and work situation, we wanted to be on the map for some of those relocatees, and Northwest Arkansas is not as well known as a tech hub or a strong economy, like an Austin, or a Nashville, or other places. And so we wanted to put together a program to kind of put ourselves on the map and really publicize the type of work that you can do here and the quality of life you can have here in addition to attracting the right type of people that are going to help us build our innovation ecosystem here.
Karen Roby: Nelson, just to make sure I understand this correctly, the initiative, again, was to offer $10,000 to those that would relocate, as I mentioned in the beginning. Also, either a bicycle for those that are interested in taking advantage of all of the cycling lanes and the great bicycling trails you have there, or an arts institution membership as well.
Nelson Peacock: We wanted to attract the right type of person, the type of person that was looking for what we were offering here. We don’t want someone to relocate here for one year and type away on their computer in their basement and then leave. Right? We want people that are going to appreciate what we have to offer here, get involved in the community. And that was the rationale behind adding those two incentives.
Karen Roby: Well, obviously it worked, Nelson. As I’ve come to understand that you guys had over 30,000 applicants, I understand from over 115 countries. That’s crazy. I can’t imagine whittling this down. That had to take quite a bit of time, but you certainly come up with a really impressive list of people who decided to take that leap of faith and relocate.
Nelson Peacock: We have founders of companies, we have data scientists, we have engineers, founders of companies. It’s really been interesting to see this happen. And I think the pandemic has taught a lot of people that they can not only do their work, but they can excel at it and do it kind of wherever works best for them. They don’t have to be in a particular location to do their work. So, I don’t know what that speaks to longer transitions and workflows and if this is here to stay, but I think there’s something to it. I think a lot of workers are going to be demanding this type of flexibility going forward.
Karen Roby: All right. And Nelson, of course, some of those folks have already made that jump and have relocated to your area. Some others are in the process of doing that now. One of those that’s already there and is taking advantage of this opportunity, Caroline Hernandez. Caroline is a senior project manager. She’s been in the video game industry for many years now. And Caroline, we’re glad to talk to you as you relocated from California. Tell us about that decision.
Caroline Hernandez: I thought it was pretty exciting that the Northwest Arkansas Council was taking a really serious interest in trying to develop this area. When you think of tech, you don’t think of Arkansas, you’re thinking of big cities, such as, the Bay Area, or New York, or Los Angeles. Arkansas doesn’t really cross people’s minds when it comes to tech. And so the fact that they’re trying to diversify this area and bring a crowd of people who can certainly develop future jobs and future opportunities in this area, instead of what Arkansas is traditionally known for, I think is a great asset. And not only does it help bring more awareness to the area, but ultimately it probably would lead to more jobs, more infrastructure to help support the technological sector.
Karen Roby: Nelson, going back to you for just a moment. Obviously the goal here is to get people who will want to relocate and really put down roots and stay there to help attract more businesses and more people in this sector to want to come work, own businesses, and open things there. How do you keep people connected once they’ve made this decision to take part of this program?
Nelson Peacock: We’re going to have events. We’re going to have happy hours. Those that are engineers, we’re going to plug them into groups that fit their interests. We’re going to do that through the course of the year here that they’re here and hopefully get them plugged in. I think the ones that are relocating here through this program already have a bit of a bond together. And as COVID loosens up and now the economy’s opened up, we’ll continue to do more of that.
Karen Roby: Caroline, I know you’ve started to meet others that have relocated and enter part of this program. What would you say to leaders in other cities that are wanting to do something similar in an effort to attract top talent?
Caroline Hernandez: I think the sole fact of having more affordable housing is something that will draw anyone from a big city. I mean, I have been living in California for many years, but it’s very expensive to buy a home there and the money doesn’t go as far. I mean, when I first came out to Arkansas right away, look at what does a $500,000 house get you? And it’s a mansion compared to what you’re buying in California. And I think that alone is a huge initiative for people to leave big cities. I think with COVID, the Northwest Arkansas Council just happened to initiate this program at an amazing time because with COVID, we’ve been able to realize that perm work from home is a reality for many, many companies. People can still be fully productive as if they were in the office.
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Karen Roby: All right. And Caroline, before we close out here, just some final thoughts from you. What do you hope, say, six to 12 months from now, that this looks like for you?
Caroline Hernandez: Living in California, I didn’t think I would really want to have a family. Whereas being in this part of the country, it seems more realistic to have a big house and have that big yard where you have your dog and your kids running around. I think that alone is a huge incentive to bring people, especially young people who want to start families early. I think also, linking up people from tech with the right resources once they do arrive. What was great about the Northwest Arkansas Council is that they help bridge the gap. They help put me in touch with people, whether it was at city hall or in other outreach programs that I was passionate about. And I think without those introductions, it probably would’ve taken me a bit longer to do the outreach. I think that’s a huge step into helping them facilitate this.
I hope that six months from now, some of the passion projects that I have been working on here in the community will have taken off and we’ve made steps towards progress. And I hope that in that time, the program will continue to expand and they will bring more tech people over so that we can help further develop this area and put Northwest Arkansas on the map.
Karen Roby: So far, Nelson has told us that 35 people have relocated or in the process of that. And they’re hoping by early fall to have at least 100 people part of this program. And at that point, the Northwest Arkansas Council will reevaluate and decide if they want to continue the program or if that will be it as a possible stopping point there. More folks are on the way and the end goal, at least for this year, is to have up to 100 people taking part in this initiative.