The prospect of moving to Waco specifically to begin one’s career was somewhat inconceivable as little as five years ago. Since then, Waco has evidently altered its course, evolving into a business hub for those eager to start something from scratch. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in just the past five months, about 1,800 people have started working in Waco.
Unsurprisingly, this trend of new work and growth does not exclude young people eager to get their feet on the ground straight out of school. Youth from both Baylor and afar are making the trek to Central Texas to take advantage of recent growth, and more than one Waco entity is working specifically to help and keep them here.
Keith Maynard, a Tax Manager with JRBT, is the Events Chair of Waco Young Professionals, a networking organization that strives to foster connections among the city’s youthful workforce. Maynard said he is passionate about helping young people establish themselves because his skills can aid in the sustainability of their businesses and careers.
“I personally like to focus my efforts on young professionals, because individuals make so many life-shaping decisions in the earliest part of their career,” Maynard said. “And if some part of my experience can help someone else make the best decision for their lives, that is where I want to focus my energy.”
In addition to being attractive to young people, Maynard said Waco is now perceived by various demographics as a prime location to live. Maynard said he has noticed a shift in the way his friends and family perceive his decision to move to Waco.
“When my wife and I chose to stay in Waco back in 2010, we had negative feedback from multiple people asking why we would do such a thing,” Maynard said. “However, now, it is common and even ‘cool’ to stay in Waco.”
Maynard said he thinks there are many factors contributing to this, but an overarching theme is a new energy Waco has developed, which is likely why young people find the prospect of starting their careers in Waco so enticing.
“There is a new, innovative, creative energy that is affecting the entire city,” Maynard said. “I think as young professionals are considering their options, the energy that is here highly encourages people to stay.”
The very existence of Waco Young Professionals evidences a new commitment to attracting and retaining full-time employees in professional fields. Evan Hebert, another employee working for the sake of professionals in Waco, is the Initiative Coordinator for Campus Town Waco, a student retention initiative jointly funded by Baylor and the City of Waco. Hebert said his sole responsibility is connecting employers with people looking for work, and that this speaks into the City’s dedication to helping young people plant their feet.
“In a bigger city, they would just say, ‘Go apply to jobs. Go look on LinkedIn. Go figure it out,’” Hebert said. “But Waco believes in keeping young people here… especially at this point in time. They’re paying [me] to do the ground work.”
Congruent with Maynard’s observations, Hebert also mentioned a recent collective shift in the average person’s perceptions of Waco.
“Five years ago, this job would have been impossible because people were still being sold on Waco,” Hebert said. “But most people are sold at this point.”
Instead of having to convince others that Waco is worth the investment, Hebert said he can focus on starting conversations, bridging gaps between employers and potential employees, and gathering the resources aspirants need to be successful.
While the rise in employment may reflect jobs obtained by native Wacoans, many other positions are fulfilled by those from afar. Tesla’s Cafe, the recently opened café and coffee pub on Washington Avenue, is owned by Margaret Smelser and Heath Collard, a couple who moved to Waco in 2017 from Las Cruces, New Mexico. Nonprofit art gallery and event space Cultivate 7twelve, which officially opened its doors December 2017, is owned by Rebekah Hagman, a native of California. The list goes on.
Eric Wren, a 2014 Baylor graduate, is one example of the migration of youth into the city. Co-owner and founder of new donut truck “Nightlight Donuts,” Wren and his twin brother, Jackson, chose to start their new business in Waco, their hometown, as opposed to their former stomping grounds of New York City.
Wren said his brother and he moved to New York together and studied under an artisan pastry chef for six months. Having learned everything there is to know about the art of making donuts, the Wren brothers had every intention of starting their new donut truck adventure in New York City. After some thought and consideration, however, the brothers concluded that Waco would be the perfect place to launch their business.
“[Waco]’s not saturated yet,” Wren said. “There’s so many opportunities here. There’s so many connections. There's so many young people with ideas.”
Similar to both Maynard’s and Hebert’s observations, Eric Wren said he has noticed a collective shift in outsiders’ perceptions of Waco — that, within the past five years, Waco has become “the place to be.” Wren said he has noticed this especially among the friends he graduated with in 2014, many of whom have confessed to wishing they could return to Waco.
“I’ve noticed, too, friends who left in 2013 or 2014, moved up to Dallas or Houston or Austin, and they’re now the ones who are like, ‘Oh my gosh. We’re trying to figure out how to get back to Waco,’” Eric said.
The growth in Waco has unequivocally received diverse feedback, ranging from excitement to frustration, and while the term “growth” typically eludes to positive change, some may feel left out of the process.
Hebert said he has considered this prospect, especially having grown up in Waco and understanding gentrification to be a true problem.
“My target market is recent graduates, but the cool thing about what I do is I can help anyone,” Hebert said. “I can help the 18-year-old who just got out of school. I can help the 60-year-old who’s looking for a career change. The mom who’s restarting her career at MCC. The guy who joined the military, loved it for 10 years, now is looking to start his career. My job doesn’t discriminate.”
If anything, because of an improvement in the local economy, there are new resources for people who have always lived in Waco but maybe struggled to find good work. The growth, though attractive to recent graduates, is neither exclusive to young people nor a specific demographic, gender, race or religion. Indiscriminate, Waco’s boom can be a positive experience for anyone excited about contributing to the city they currently or someday will call home.
Eric Wren’s observations — the very concepts that brought himself, his twin brother and his new business from New York to central Texas — are that Waco and its people are moving in an upward direction, not in competition with one another, but in connection and collaboration.
“I just think people in Waco rally behind other people in Waco,” he said.