Young professionals come to Charleston for the quality of life, stay for the work 

Sun, Sand, Surf, and a Paycheck

Kellee McGahey spent a summer in Charleston years ago and decided that this was where she wanted to live. After graduating from college, she spent time in Charlotte building her resume and finally moved to Charleston almost four years ago. A new survey by the Charleston Area Metro Chamber of Commerce suggests she's not the only career-minded transplant to come from "off" with an eye on the area's culture instead of the annual income.

McGahey is the chairman of the chamber's Charleston Young Professionals group, a collection of more than 400 locals under 40 who come together monthly for networking and professional development. CYP was created to help retain the area's young, ambitious workforce and to foster that kind of talent. To that end, the members of the CYP group were surveyed recently to gauge their work and personal backgrounds.

The survey found that 61 percent of those who took the survey were transplants to Charleston. Only 31 percent said they came to Charleston because of a job offer. Relying on other things, like climate (73 percent) and culture (46 percent), is a growing trend among younger professionals, McGahey says.

"It's live first, work second," she says, quoting national business author and consultant Rebecca Ryan.

Allison Cox McCutcheon was working in Charleston before her employer transferred her to Charlotte. Recognizing she'd take a paycut, McCutcheon came back to the Charleston job market.

"I'd rather be happy and not make as much money," she says.

While more than half of those surveyed said they were making less than $50,000 a year, 69 percent said they had a leadership position in their workplace, with 35 percent saying they were either the director or CEO of their company.

"That's a great testament to the strength and leadership of this age group," McGahey says of those who are business owners. "They're not looking for the work. They're creating it."

John Rizzo, who has a few budding projects of his own, helps lead a CYP internet forum on entrepreneurship.

"You can really launch here with the kind of success you might not find starting out in a big city," he says.

Some of the findings in the survey won't be a surprise to anyone, regardless of their entrepreneurial spirit — many work on the peninsula but live somewhere else. Almost all of those surveyed were college graduates.

They recognized cost of living, lack of jobs, and traffic as the three worst things about Charleston. It echoes similar concerns from the Chamber membership rosters outside the CYP age group, says Pennie Bingham, the chamber vice president of business development and innovation.

The CYP program has been one of the chamber's most successful initiatives, Bingham says.

"We know we've struck a chord in that arena," she says.

Heading into its third year, CYP is launching a mentorship program that will pair young professionals with established names in their field.

"It's about exposing them to all that's out there and showing local leaders what this generation can do," McGahey says.

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