Connecting Colleges and Companies: The Role City Leaders Can Play for a Better Economy

College towns and major metros miss out on significant growth potential when college students pack up and leave after graduation. This exodus, often called “brain drain,” represents a loss of top talent — and, by proxy, a loss of economic development. On the flip side, there’s a lot to be gained by cities that make an effort to retain their student populations.

When companies and universities work together to help students find the jobs that work best for them, recent graduates stick to the city they’re in rather than seek jobs elsewhere. Given the chance, it’s easier to stay where they’re already established.

But if a region is not retaining its college graduates, it’s hard to create the density of talent necessary to build a thriving economy. Density of talent combined with incentives for corporations will attract companies and the additional tax revenue they generate — not to mention that young people with advancing careers spend a lot of money on the goods and services a city provides!

That’s where city officials come in. In order to bolster their local economies, city leaders must facilitate relationships between their schools and local businesses.

City Leaders Connect the Pieces

There’s a natural correlation between companies and universities here. Companies need established pipelines for talent, and universities cultivate that talent. But city leaders have a stake in that connection, too. Minimizing brain drain can help boost your local economy, and you can initiate and influence these reciprocal relationships between schools and employers.

Cooperation among these entities unlocks innovation at a local and regional level. After all, people work with people they trust, and trust is developed through mutually beneficial interactions. These interactions typically are caused or enhanced by the proximity of opportunities. It’s like dating: High school relationships don’t often last into college because you make stronger connections with new people who are nearer. Similarly, companies and universities can create a competitive advantage by leveraging what’s right in front of them: talented graduates.

City officials and organizations — like chambers of commerce or economic development agencies — can be a connective tissue, partnering with presidents of local universities, recruiting leaders at companies, and entrepreneurs who bring innovative perspectives. This also advances the city’s aims: achieving growth by preserving talent.

What city leaders must do first is identify the holes in their overall economic narratives. Where does the city have room to grow economically? What jobs does the area lack, and where are the students who could fill those roles going? Then, leaders can recruit the appropriate parties to fill those holes.

Across the pond in Sheffield, England, the city government implemented a program that matches graduates to jobs with smaller local employers. This incentivized more than 100 students to stay there postgraduation.

Similarly, in 2013, the city of Lafayette, Ind., retained Purdue University students when local businesses intentionally sought out Boilermakers for employment. The Greater Lafayette Commerce capitalized on this trend by creating a Community of Choice plan designed to forge relationships between Purdue and the region to drive innovation. This increased job openings for young talent. It’s a matter of promoting the availability of opportunity where students already live.

It Takes a Village

A recent study uncovered some promising statistics about collegiate retention. It’s not just large, desirable cities such as New York and Los Angeles where college students remain after graduation. College-educated Millennials in cities like Detroit and Houston stay at rates higher than 70 percent. They are swayed by the familiar and convinced by the job prospects. They also like the opportunity of making a difference in cities that have been recently challenged. Students will follow the opportunity, but it’s easier to win them over if they don’t have to go far and wide to seek it.

When city officials work with universities to create pipelines for local businesses, students shouldn’t have to look very far for their next chapters. Graduating seniors take the jobs that open up to them where they are. And these jobs are even more desirable when cities capitalize on young talent to drive innovation — a niche where many Millennials see themselves. This helps cities not only solve local issues, but also benefit from the economic resources that young professionals contribute.

City leaders have the tools to reduce brain drain. Connect universities, students, and businesses, and watch it entice graduates to stay.

Chris Motley is the founder and CEO of Better Weekdays, an inbound recruiting platform in St. Louis that powers brand-driven campus hiring. 

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