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Scott Kirsner | Innovation Economy

Youth Movement

With a startling number of young people leaving New England since 1990, colleges, companies, and state officials are trying to provide incentives for them to stay

Email|Print| Text size + By Scott Kirsner
February 17, 2008

Aziz Grieser has been through the revolving door.

Grieser, 28, earned his MBA last spring from Babson College in Wellesley, and he's now living in the San Francisco Bay area, trying to get an Internet start-up off the ground with a fellow Babson alum.

"Every day, you can attend five different meetings of venture capitalists, or workshops on how to hire," says Grieser, adding that he can also play tennis whenever the whim strikes.

For young people like Grieser, a native of Maryland, coming to Boston and the larger New England area to get a degree is like spinning through a revolving door. Those four-, six-, or eight-year visits keep the higher education industry afloat, but they're part of a growing problem for everyone else: Employers large and small, state and local governments, and anyone who expects their children or grandchildren to be able to find a job here in the future. Young people are leaving New England at a startling pace, whether they came here for an education or grew up in the neighborhood. According to the Census Bureau, between 1990 and 2006, all six New England states occupied prominent spots on the list of states losing population fastest in the 25-34 age group.

That exodus, if it continues, poses a real threat to the region's competitiveness in a global economy. "Young adult workers provide businesses with the dynamic labor force and fresh ideas they need to innovate and grow," writes economist Ross Gittell, in a 2007 journal article titled "Demographic Demise."

They also start entrepreneurial ventures that can turn into big employers overnight. Their ideas and energy fuel the innovation economy here - or in California, North Carolina, or Colorado, if they choose to decamp.

Whenever the topic of New England's overall appeal comes up, a litany of negatives often follow: high costs of living and taxes, frosty winters, a business culture that can feel closed or conservative.

But, observes Bentley College economics professor Patricia Flynn, "being offered a really good job will override housing costs, and snow, and a lot of other issues." To retain our youth, we've got to focus more on getting them plugged into the business world here - well before graduation day looms.

Most business groups and trade associations don't think much about introducing college students to their members, beyond organizing the occasional career fair. Students simply aren't part of their constituencies.

And getting students' attention can be hard: A well-intentioned Boston Chamber of Commerce effort, dubbed "Hub Crawl," has gone on hiatus. Hub Crawl invited students to visit the offices of local firms like State Street Corp. and Genzyme Corp., but the turnout was sometimes underwhelming. Universities also can have trouble getting business leaders to come to campus to schmooze with students, especially if they're not alums themselves. Bigger companies tend to be the ones that show up at career fairs, not the small start-ups that might offer more responsibility or more interesting projects to a fresh hire.

"Students' preferences for smaller companies seems to be increasing," says Melanie Parker, executive director at the MIT Careers Office. Everyone would benefit from more permeability between the business world and the academic world: More internship opportunities, on-campus speeches and presentations, company open houses, and events organized by trade associations that set aside a number of cheap or free passes for students. MIT is a model of permeability: Nearly every day, there are speakers from the worlds of science and technology on campus, and all sorts of conferences. There are contests and competitions for business plans and product ideas, and the Deshpande Center for Technological Innovation helps to shepherd new ideas out of the ivory tower and into the real world.

Parker says that of the students who go to work immediately after earning an undergraduate degree, 28 percent stay in Massachusetts. (Many move to New York and California, she says - states with equally high taxes and costs of living.) Other schools would be smart to emulate what MIT does, or innovate, coming up with ideas of their own to create links with the business community.

The University System of New Hampshire has been making a concerted effort to develop its own strategies for keeping students in the region. Chancellor Stephen Reno says that about half of the system's graduates "pack up at the end of four years and leave." His goal is to slow the revolving door, keeping 10 percent of them in the state. USNH figured that those additional employees would have an economic impact of about $42 million a year.

Since announcing his "55% Initiative" last January, Reno has been giving talks to business groups and big employers around New Hampshire, and he has begun to reach out to marketing departments at various schools in the state to seek their help in developing a campaign that would connect with fellow students.

"We've said to them, here's the target audience, and here's our message, now what should we do?" Reno says. Using students to communicate with students, rather than an ad agency that could prove tone-deaf, is a good move. At a course on "The Meaning of Entrepreneurship" that's taught at the University of New Hampshire's business school, each of the 25 students has an entrepreneurial mentor from the area business community. "These people know the roles that mentors played in their life, and they want to give back," says economist Gittell, who teaches the new course.

Students profile the entrepreneurs by creating a podcast, and the entrepreneurs offer advice about the business world - and perhaps eventually dangle a job or internship. But those kinds of positive interactions can only work with the help of entrepreneurs, employees, and executives from local companies.

Forging more connections between academia and the business world is one key to halting New England's demographic slide. The other necessary element is marketing: both planned and casual, high-profile, and word-of-mouth.

Students like Aziz Grieser, whose start-up idea melds e-commerce and gaming, go to Silicon Valley not just because they can play tennis, but because it's perceived as a hotbed of innovation. Ruthie Davis, a Babson grad from the early 1990s, started her footwear company in Manhattan because, she says, "If you're going to be in the fashion business, you need to be in New York City."

Massachusetts and the other New England states need to send a clear message about what's happening here, and why students should stay. If Kendall Square is the world capital of the life sciences industry, let's say so. If we've got a cluster of clean energy concerns, or private equity firms, or Internet video start-ups, let's get the message out. And let's make sure it's heard by people in their teens and twenties - before they spin through our revolving door.

Innovation Economy is a weekly column focusing on entrepreneurship, technology, and venture capital in New England. Scott Kirsner can be reached at kirsner@pobox.com.

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