Wanted on Cape Cod: Young People (Preferably Year-Round)

Sandwich, MA - 04/29/14 - A boat makes its way along the Cape Cod Canal. - (Barry Chin/Globe Staff), Section: Business, Reporter: Breite, Topic: xxSandwich, LOID: 7.3.2505585306.
The Cape Cod Canal in Sandwich.
Barry Chin / Globe Staff

What do you call it when a region loses a quarter of its young people in a decade?

If you’re an organization that represents young professionals in that region, you might as well call it an existential crisis.

That’s why Cape Cod Young Professionals, the regional advocacy and networking group for workers aged 25-44, has commissioned Northeastern’s Dukakis Center for Urban and Regional Policy to conduct a broad survey of both current residents and those who have left the Cape, seeking to figure out just how to keep young people around. The results are in and will be unveiled at a June 18 breakfast for CCYP members.

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The region has been leaking young workers since 2000, experiencing a 26 percent drop in its 25-44 population between the 2000 and 2010 censuses. In the same time period, the number of 80-year-olds on the peninsula grew by 20 percent. A Cape Cod Times article, published in 2011, said business and civic leaders have been worried about the outflow since at least 2007. And some efforts to retain and recruit young workers on Cape Cod have already come and gone to varying degrees of success.

But CCYP executive director Anne Van Vleck says the Dukakis report will represent the richest attempt yet to dig into the mindset of the population in question. “This is the first time we are getting real, first-person data from the 24-to-44 age group,” she tells Boston.com.

There have been plenty of theories as to the reason for the exodus. Many people point to the cost of living, boosted by second home owners who vacate their houses most of the year. However, while some towns are priced out of this world, the Cape’s real estate market is generally cheaper compared to Boston, which has no trouble attracting young workers. A dearth of year-round, professional-level jobs and a lack of big business mean there aren’t a lot of opportunities for career advancement. Fears of a quiet offseason—seriously, have you been to Provincetown in the winter?—come up frequently as well.

Talking to young people who have both stuck around and left, the challenges seem to be a mix of all those factors. Devin Miller, 25, is an Allston resident who grew up in Barnstable. He acknowledges that he could possibly find cheaper housing on the Cape, but doubts he’d be able to find a job that would pay enough to come out in a better position. He currently works at an Apple store. “In Boston, (living) is a bit more expensive, but the pay evens it out,” he says.

Zoe Wolf, 24, helps run a program called Plain Talk, which hosts events for teens and tries to help understand what it means to be a young person on the Cape. She says the high school youth she has interacted with points to career opportunities when it comes to talking about whether they’ll stick around. Wolf herself says she works a number of part-time jobs, including her work with Plain Talk, due to the lack of full-time opportunities outside of peak season.

Experiences like Miller’s and Wolf’s, Van Vleck says, should be a part of the conversation.

“People say there aren’t jobs,” she says. “Well, maybe there are jobs, but are they paying a living wage?”

While CCYP won’t unveil the findings before June 18, Van Vleck says encouraging companies to look further down the road by thinking of their own succession plans, and finding ways to further encourage entrepreneurship, might help.

However, CCYP doesn’t think solutions will come by trying to mimic urban centers. “We’re not looking to change the Cape,” she says. “It’s about making things ideal for (young professionals) who do choose the Cape.”

While that sounds more like a way to retain young people already there, Falmouth resident Damien Palanza thinks making sure the Cape keeps its distinctive character can also serve to recruit. Palenza, 36, runs The Real Cape, a blog that provides Cape Cod news and opinion for a younger audience, and says he and many both his age and older think the region should embrace its vacation-land character, and find ways to build upon it further. His theory: Making the region more fun to visit will ultimately make people think it might be fun to live there, too.