Rebecca Ryan opened her talk with a question that strikes a nerve with every astute business owner.

What’s the cost of recruiting and hiring a talented new employee?

One person immediately blurted out $3,000. Another estimated it was closer to $20,000 in his business. Ryan didn’t quibble over the disparity.

“This is a bottom-line issue,” Ryan said Wednesday at a Charleston Metro Chamber of Commerce breakfast event. “It’s an issue of competitiveness all over the U.S.”

Ryan, a former professional basketball player in Europe, is a self-described “human spark plug” and futurist who advises cities and regions about attracting young professionals and high-performing creative types. She calls these workers the “next generation” of movers and shakers.

It’s a theme Ryan has built her business around. She heads a Madison, Wis.-based firm called Next Generation Consulting. She’s also the author of “Live First, Work Second: Getting Inside the Head of the Next Generation.”

One of her newest clients in the Charleston Metro Chamber, which has retained her company to help assess and address the so-called brain-drain that depletes too many mid-sized and smaller metro areas of their top talent.

Ryan’s firm will take a nearly year-long look at the region’s strengths and weaknesses in recruiting, retaining and developing future business and community leaders.

“To maintain its advantage as one of America’s new centers of prosperity, Charleston must think bigger and more broadly. About more than jobs, or wages, or the next economic development project,” said attorney Ron Jones, the chamber’s 2012 chairman. “Charleston must extend its lead and become a destination for the next generation.”

“I call it a peek-around-the-corner epiphany,” added Bryan Derreberry, president and chief executive officer of the 239-year-old business organization.

Cool vibe

Ryan will be compiling data and input to form what she called Charleston’s “handprint.” The seven indexes run the gamut from pocketbook issues such as housing affordability to more nebulous social measurements.

“Being not boring matters,” she quipped.

As Ryan and others see it, the quality-of-life quotient will become increasingly important to a workforce that’s becoming increasingly mobile while putting off the traditional adult rituals of marriage, children, home purchases and other commitments.

By some estimates, newcomers to the rat race could find themselves cashing paychecks from as many as 15 different employers by the time they quality for the proverbial gold watch, she said.

But that doesn’t mean they will be pulling up roots and moving 15 times. Technology will allow the best and brightest to plant roots where they choose and travel as needed.

“For the next generation, where they work is going to change,” Ryan said. “But where they live will become part of their identity.”

Charleston, with its small but emerging high-technology cluster, is poised to capitalize on that.

“You’ve got this cool vibe,” Ryan said. “You’ve got the beach.”

But engaging the next generation requires more than weekend amenities. She said one of the keys is that the establishment will need to make a seat at the table for the young Turks on important issues.

At the same time, the fresh-faced set must be willing to step up and go “eyeball to eyeball” and “shoulder to shoulder” with the old guard.

“That might mean a little less Facebook time,” she said.

New pecking order

Ryan said the U.S. has been going through a change of seasons since the race riots of the 1960s, which spelled the end of the long economic “summer” that followed the close of World War II.

Winter set in around 2001, after the terrorist attacks, she said.

To illustrate her point she showed a picture of a snowy landscape. The trees, while covered in the white stuff and dormant, are far from being dead, she said.

“They’re hibernating. ... When spring comes again, there will be a new pecking order of cities,” she said.

Ryan’s assessment will measure the Charleston region against five peers: Austin, Texas; Charlotte; Nashville, Tenn.; Raleigh; and Savannah.

“Some are bigger, some are smaller, and some are very aspirational. Austin is a very aspirational market,” she said of the Texas capital and high-tech hub.

The chamber plans to use the study to help it develop an action plan. Ryan said she will unveil the results in early 2013.

“Mark your calendars,’ she said. “I’d love to see you in January.”

Contact John McDermott at 937-5572 or jmcdermott@postandcourier.com.