Rethinking ‘Talent Retention’

by
Kelly Steffen
Monday, December 7, 2009

Everyone in Lansing is talking about talent retention. “How do we keep students in Michigan?” With over 54 percent of students in Michigan leaving the state after they graduate, the “brain drain” is certainly a problem.

So I have a solution: let’s build a wall around every campus in Michigan. It will certainly keep our bright students here and away from those evil places like Chicago and D.C. Sure, it might prevent those smart and talented young adults from Ohio and the East/West coast from getting in.

Catch my sarcasm? The very essence of the word retention irks me. It sounds like we need to physically hold students here, possibly even against their will if need be. It might be semantics, but there has to be a better concept for infusing the talents of our young adults into Michigan. To change things, we have to change the way we approach the strategy, which starts with changing the terms we use. So how about instead of saying talent retention, we say something like talent invigoration, talent activation, or talent infusion? None of these suggest physical acts of restraining young adults. Instead they are phrases that mean empowering talent to fully maximize their knowledge to improve Michigan’s economy.

The very essence of the word “retention” irks me. It might be semantics, but there has to be a better concept for infusing the talents of our young adults into Michigan.

In my mind, there are three components to talent invigoration, or whatever you want to call it (just not talent retention!): showing students who want to stay here that there are a lot of great opportunities for them, attracting other young adults to the region, and keeping those who want to leave connected to the region in order to provide value.

So how do we keep students that want to stay here? I have a couple of friends who would like to stay in Michigan but could not find a suitable job. A lot of them also didn’t even bother to look real hard for a job here.  So one, we need to change this perception. We need to show students there are a lot of innovative jobs in Michigan, which they should have to intensely scavenge for. When students think of innovative, cool job opportunities, we should make sure students at least think to look around them. Two, we need to show students that this is a happening place. They won’t be stuck hanging out at the same ‘ol bars and restaurants if they stay here. There is a lot of nightlife they haven’t yet experienced. Three, we need to show students that they can start their own entrepreneurial venture here if they can’t find a job that fits their needs. This includes offering business services and venture capital and grants for young adults.

The second component of talent infusion is attracting outside talent to the region. So how do we do this? We need to create a national message that says, “Hey! Michigan is cool. It’s not the dying automobile center that national newspapers likes to portray it as. We’re soooo past that.” This is intricately linked to component one. If young adults are making things happen in Michigan and there are good lifestyle and professional opportunities, that gives a darn good message to those looking to stop being a small fish in Chicago’s big pond.

The third component is one so easily forgotten. There seems to be a negative reaction by many policy makers, economic developers, etc. of those students that choose to leave the region. Sure, the state won’t get their income tax. But if we find a way for those students to stay connected to the region, most likely in the future they will provide a much greater value to the region than what their measly income tax would provide. For example, in September, my company Spotlight Campus (operating at the time as Spotlight Michigan) hosted an idea contest with Young, Smart and Global Lansing called the “Eve of Ignition.” What people might not know is that my main partner in crime at Spotlight, Dan Redford, was in China this summer, while I was in DC. Our other two colleagues, Chelsea Burnett and Matt Barkell, were in East Lansing. The four of us collaborated, planned, and executed vital elements for the contest while we were spread out all summer. As you can see, Dan and I had produced a great asset for the region, while we weren’t physically here, simply because we wanted to see something good happen in the region.

So how do we create this connection? We have to get students emotionally connected to the region early in their college career. Then if they need to branch out after graduation, they are connected enough to the region that they don’t peace out for good, only to communicate with the region through visits back for an MSU versus U-M tailgate. We need to create a dialogue with these students about what they are learning from places all over the world and how we can apply them to Michigan. We absolutely cannot afford to continue to lose ties with these students and take them as a lost cause. With an open dialogue, there are good chances that they’ll be back to apply their new global perspective and advanced skills to Michigan.

So maybe it’s semantics, but retention is not the right word here unless we’re talking about a physical action taken to keep students here. Instead, we should be finding ways to infuse students into this economy and to get them excited to actively participate in it. The question shouldn’t be just “why are young adults leaving the state?” — but instead, “why are they not tuned in and excited about what is happening in the state?”


Kelly Steffen is a senior at Michigan State University, majoring in International Relations and Economics. She has recently formed her own company called Spotlight Campus Consulting, LLC, which works to connect economic developers, community organizers, businesses and media groups to Gen Y in the Lansing region.

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15 Responses to “Rethinking ‘Talent Retention’”

  1. Drained brain

    Just stumbled across your blog entry, and I would like to politely disagree with your premise. “We need to show students there are a lot of innovative jobs in Michigan…” See, every Michigan booster is quick to point this out. The problem: while the likes of Model D Media can cherry-pick some innovators, it's not broadly true. I'm sure you've seen this recent chart: http://bit.ly/3G1qyg

    The real problem regarding retention is that Michigan — particularly the Detroit area — is a nightmarish relic of 1950s thinking. No public transportation or walkable neighborhoods? No problem! Everyone can drive wherever they want, and they'll all be supremely happy doing it! Green space? Who needs it — we'll build Detroit and the 15 miles of suburbs surrounding it in a uniform grid, with the same single-family houses everywhere you look! Young people don't want that. There's a reason they pay through the nose to live in Brooklyn or San Francisco.

    Stories have been written in a variety of publications about the fact that young people just keep moving to cities like Portland even though there aren't enough jobs there. (The chart above bears this out) They move because the area itself is cool, not because they expect to find jobs. These days, young educated people choose a destination before they find a job. So if Michigan (particularly Detroit) wants its young people to stay, it's not enough to show them that they *can* make a living here. The state needs to make itself a place where they *want* to make a living.

    Obviously, making it so there *are* innovative jobs here wouldn't hurt either. (I'm no fiscal conservative, but this state needs to give itself a better business climate– look how easy it has been to get a film industry presence here, just by forgoing some taxes on exciting and high-profile movie projects.)

    Changing the name of the problem isn't going to fix anything.

    #181
  2. kellysteffen

    Sure Drained Brain, Michigan isn't perfect. It can do a lot to provide jobs. However, that being said, why the negativity?! There's tons of cool things going on here. There's cool/innovative companies like LiquidWeb and Techsmith in Lansing that are snatching up recent graduates. Different types of Young, Smart and Global Networks are sprouting up and working to improve cities so there are green spaces and public transportation. Some young adults just haven't realized that there are a lot of super positive things going on here in Michigan. So yes, we need to show them there are jobs and cool living spaces.

    For some students Michigan is not going to provide the career they are looking for here right now. I want to emphasize we can't just let those students go as lost causes. They still can provide a lot of value for Michigan.

    #182
  3. Take a look at your Michigan town, and its cultural and political institutions, and see if you find any of its leaders under the age of 35. Conversely, find any organized groups of young people and see what actual influence they have over anything in your town. Is there any culture of mentorship? Any re-greening of talent? Or just stagnation?

    IMO, it's not just the business culture and climate – it's a broader alienation of youth from civic participation, battling a status quo that just won't go.

    #185
  4. Derek

    I think Drained Brain is just being realistic.

    Take Old Town Lansing for example. There isn't even a grocery store in the area, so even if you wanted to live in that hip pocket of Lansing, you still have to drive to Meijer to buy groceries. It surprises me that even people/groups you think would be smart-growth-minded aren't. For example, I spoke to an employee of the East Lansing Food Coop about how they were thinking of opening a storefront in one of the old streetcar-era business districts on the Westside. They turned down the idea when they learned there wouldn't be ample parking.

    The whole city's mindset is still focused on the suburbs. Architecturally, the new city market is a ridiculous attempt to place a country polebarn in the middle of town. Lansing Township's “Downtown Development Authority” considers a fancy strip mall 5 miles from downtown to be a “towne center” and a “downtown district.” The two companies you list, Techsmith and LiquidWeb, are both located far out in the suburbs. The reality is that Lansing does not have the urban charm that creative cities have and no one seems to really want to do anything about it. Everyone continues to live and work in the suburbs and ask, “gosh, why aren't those kids moving downtown?”

    I also think the mindset of “kids want a place where they can get cool jobs” is wrong as well. The reason Silicon Valley is so hot is not because people know about the cool jobs other people have out there. Rather, it's because people are hired for jobs out there. Contrast it to Michigan, where there is little to no venture capital flowing into the area, willing to invest in recent graduates with slightly-crazy ideas.

    It's not simply a matter of educating the kids, it's about changing the community.

    PS – I also believe the title, “Young, Smart and Global” is a bit pretentious.

    #186
  5. mariahmorrow

    The best way to retain smart kids is to not tax them right out of the state. Of course I'm a little more incensed than usual about taxes right now, since I just heard that our house approved a tax increase on cell phones last week, and the Senate is considering it tomorrow. What the heck are they thinking, is all I want to know. They're going to make cell phone use cost even more, as if all of us in Michigan weren't burdened enough as is.

    Our legislature needs to get its act together and realize the taxes aren't the answer

    #189
  6. SpotlightCampusman

    “Changing the name of the problem isn't going to fix anything.”

    Language is everything. It creates a perception. When we perceive that the solution to our “brain drain” is “retention,” we've already lost. How can a strategy of “retention” work in a global economy? Changing the wording is the first way to change the way we conceptualize how to fix the problem. It changes the way we think.

    So, the reason that Kelly is right on about “talent infusion” instead of “talent retention” is that is gets us (“us” being Michigan residents, small business owners, economic developers, government officials…everybody that is working towards or cares about Michigan's future) thinking about how to garner value out of young, bright innovators that may or may not choose to stay in the stay. We need to think about changing a perception about Michigan, one that has lasting power. I believe that what this means is what Kelly describes: fostering a community that supports intangible networks of entrepreneurs and innovators. T

    hat way, people in the community, particularly young people, will be in touch with the “goings on,” which, I guarantee you, Drained brain, is more than you elicit. There are plenty of things going on in Lansing, and in Michigan as a whole. Detroit is certainly down, but does it do anything to continue to buy into it? Assess what's good and what's bad, and create a perception that is different than the status quo by highlighting the good. People can be proud of Michigan cities again; and that pride will most assuredly make these places more attractive for young people.

    #190
  7. JibberJabber

    Mariah, have you ever examined data comparing tax burdens in different parts of the country? I think you'll find that taxes in Michigan aren't so bad. Heck, young people flock to Chicago and they have a sales tax around 10%. The link between taxes, cost of living, and talent attraction is not so clear, and in some cases, exactly the opposite of what you might think.

    #192
  8. Angela Clock

    Kelly -

    I really think you hit it on the head in point 3 – if people don't have any connection to their communities, there's really no reason for them to stay, even with the other 2 components. Young people who get involved in their communities and get connected to other people in the community are more likely to try to look for jobs that are in their community. Personally, I've involved myself in many local organizations, including the Jaycees who are churning out talented young people between 21-40 all over Michigan. It's really gotten me connected – we visit local bars, restaurants, attractions, while also providing community events such as Easter Egg Hunt, Relay for Life, Children's Shopping Spree and Food Drives. We're all about giving back to our community.

    I appreciate the comments you made regarding this, and hope that you continue your success here! You give us much to think about!

    #193
  9. kellysteffen

    Thanks Angela for the nice comments! I think the Jaycees are doing a lot of great stuff and hope they keep up the work with connecting young adults to the Greater Lansing community!

    #197
  10. Drained brain

    Kelly, I think you and Derek are both right. I am being negative, but in Michigan, that's the same as being realistic these days. I agree that there is plenty of cool and innovative work going on here, but there's also a sense of blind exceptionalism at work among Michigan boosters. There are cool jobs and places everywhere, but Michigan has some distinctive problems: an economy that depends on unskilled rather than creative labor, public policy that perpetuates that system and a disturbing lack of foresight in urban/regional planning.

    Spotlight, you say the key is “fostering a community that supports intangible networks of entrepreneurs and innovators.” Real entrepreneurs and innovators seize on opportunity, not compliments. Maybe that means the low cost of doing business, or a lax regulation regime, or an abundance of materials. Henry Ford didn't invent the assembly line because people in Detroit were just so darn encouraging.

    Call it “talent retention,” “talent infusion,” or whatever you want, but telling young people that Michigan is a place with cool jobs isn't going to fix the problem. People follow jobs– not the promise of jobs. Let's make those careers real, which starts with lowering the barriers to small business growth. Those perceptions you keep going back to? Somehow, I doubt people would harbor them if Michigan had a low unemployment rate and was considered the hub of something other than failing car companies.

    #199
  11. nbashaw

    I'd like to point out that I'm a college kid with a slightly-crazy idea, and soon I'll be going after seed funding. We'll see how that goes, but I'm optimistic. There's more VC money in this state than you'd think.

    #219
  12. nbashaw

    I'd like to point out that I'm a college kid with a slightly-crazy idea, and soon I'll be going after seed funding. We'll see how that goes, but I'm optimistic. There's more VC money in this state than you'd think.

    #324
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