Connecticut Works to Keep Young Graduates in State Workforce

Within 20 minutes of his new Silicon Valley home, 24-year-old Jonathan Kulakofsky can attend concerts, relax on the beach and hike in one of California's many state parks.

It's one of the reasons the UConn Class of 2015 graduate and Connecticut native chose to leave the state.

"I feel like there were jobs around if I wanted them," said Kulakofsky, a data analyst at HotChalk, an online education company. Connecticut "just doesn't really provide a lot of things to do. It seems like their best attempt at reinvigorating the state and the social opportunities is moving a minor league baseball team from New Britain to Hartford."

Though young graduates moving out of the state isn't a new phenomenon, it's an issue that has become increasingly important as some of Connecticut's biggest businesses begin pondering whether to leave. Many companies say attracting and retaining young talent, with the technological skills the baby boomer generation lacks, is vital to their economic future.

Now, businesses and municipal leaders say the state must address this problem by not only making Connecticut's cities more walkable and adding more amenities, but by investing more in cities and offering specific degrees that feed into Connecticut's existing economy.

For example, Thomas Madden, Stamford's director of economic development, suggested offering aerospace degrees at local universities that could set young graduates up to work at Pratt & Whitney and other precision manufacturing firms.

Young graduates hold the "key to the economic kingdom," with their knowledge of new technology and how to collect and use data, said Joseph McGee, vice president of the Business Council of Fairfield County.

"There is no question that young people move where the jobs are, and we have struggled with our job creation numbers."

In April, the council released a study prepared with consulting firm McKinsey & Co, showing that Connecticut is losing young and educated people to other states, and that these young people rarely come back.

Among struggling cities in the Northeast, Buffalo, New York, is emerging as a city that has begun to reverse the trend of losing its young people.

Dottie Gallagher-Cohen, president and CEO of the Buffalo Niagara Partnership, highlighted Gov. Andrew Cuomo's "Buffalo Billion" program, where the state invested $1 billion in the Buffalo-area economy to create thousands of jobs and spur entrepreneurship. For example, the program funded a $750 million high-tech solar panel manufacturing facility in the city, creating 3,000 jobs, according to the programs website.

Gallagher-Cohen said the program's "43North Business Plan Competition" was successful at drawing young entrepreneurs to the area. The program awards $5 million in capital to startups from around the world, and also offers winners incubator space, mentorship and 10 years of freedom from state taxes.

These initiatives, paired with affordable housing developments, a vibrant riverfront and a growing craft beer scene, have helped attract recent graduates to the city, Gallagher-Cohen said.

Michael Sabol, of Glastonbury-based MahoneySabol, said the lack of a big city nearby makes it difficult to attract recent graduates to his accounting firm — a point underscored when General Electric announced it was moving its headquarters from Connecticut last winter, citing, among other things, Boston's culture of highly educated young residents.

Traditionally, there haven't been enough accounting graduates in Connecticut, and it's hard to retain those who do graduate from colleges in the state, Sabol said.

Having a social life is important to college graduates, and the state is never going to make social opportunities in Hartford equal to those of Boston, he said.

"We are so close to these big cities, there is just no way to compete with them," Sabol said. "So if the kids want to go, they go."

In 2014, more than 17,000, or 7 percent, of young adults in the 20-to-24 age group moved out of Connecticut, according to recent U.S. Census data. Nationwide, Connecticut ranked 12th-worst among the contiguous 48 states.

Of the nearly 8,000 students who graduate from UConn yearly, about 57 percent stay in state, including 18 percent of the students who came here from other states to attend UConn, according to a 2014 report by UConn. The report estimated that working graduates since 1980 contribute $55.8 billion in additional income to the state's economy annually.

Among December 2015 and May 2016 UConn undergraduates who are Connecticut residents, 79.2 percent reported that they are employed in the state, said Lee Hameroff, the university's assistant director of assessment and technology. In the state university system, 87 percent of graduates work in the state one year after graduation, and the percentage is likely higher at community colleges, a spokeswoman said.

McGee, of the Fairfield County business council, said the issue of attracting talent to the state is critical, as many local employers struggle to fill positions in data and engineering.

He suggested shifting state tax credits from companies to the individual employees. For example, the state could offer income tax credits equivalent to up to 50 percent of a student's college loan debt, assuming that the person works for a Connecticut company for more than five years, McGee said.

The state would not have to appropriate money for this program, he said, and it could help to increase the state's economic base and attract and keep businesses in the state, he said.

Maine offers a similar program — the Maine Educational Opportunity Tax Credit. The program reimburses individuals who have earned a college degree in Maine and continue to live and work in the state, or their employers, for eligible student loan payments made, according to the state's website.

"For a state that is losing population, that is losing young people, why not be bold?" McGee asked. "And say to young people with the skills we want, 'Hey, we will make it worth your while."

Bela Pina, a December 2014 Central Connecticut State University graduate, said that although there are Travelers Insurance branches across the country, she chose to work in the state where she grew up and went to college.

"I've stabilized my life here. I'm very close to my family," said Pina, an account underwriter at Travelers. "There is so much opportunity, there are so many companies that are here. Hartford is an up-and-coming city."

Trends nationwide also indicate that most graduates tend to work in the state where they attended college. About 69 percent of the 2007-08 first-time bachelor's degree recipients were still living in same state where they received their degree one year later, according to the most recent statistics by a U.S. Department of Education study.

But some students are also likely to move back home after they graduate to save money on rent, said Cynthia Christie, Quinnipiac University's assistant dean of career development for health sciences and nursing.

"As a generalization, many students do search for jobs closer to home so they have that safety net of their parents providing them with a roof to live under," she said.

In 2014, for the first time in more than 130 years, adults ages 18 to 34 were more likely to be living in their parents' home than they were to be living with a spouse or partner in their own household, according to a Pew Research Center analysis released Tuesday.

In 2013, Matt Cremins graduated from UConn and, instead of leaving the state, founded his start-up, Voda, in Storrs, said Jim Lowe, UConn's assistant vice provost who heads UConn's career development center.

Cremins is one of a handful of UConn students to whom the university provide resources so they can start and incubate businesses in the state, Lowe said.

"It retains the intellectual talent that we've fostered and grown here at UConn," Lowe said. "Our feeling is that if they take all that great knowledge and learning and leave the state, it doesn't really benefit us as a state."

According to recent Census data, the state's population has increased by about 22,000 people since 2010, with 25 percent of that increase happened in the city of Stamford.

To keep these young people in Connecticut cities, McGee said, the state needs to build more middle-income housing and amenities, such as urban parks, festivals, outdoor concerts and bike trails. Cities such as Stamford, Norwalk and even New Haven and Hartford are starting to adapt this formula, investing in housing developments with amenities aimed at millennials.

"It's the excitement of urban living," McGee said. "In Connecticut, our cities have always been perceived as failures, and now we are beginning to see that change."

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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