Rethinking ‘Talent Retention’
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.
- The New Age of Education: We Need It (January 25, 2010)
- Lansing’s Entrepreneurial Revival (February 26, 2010)
- The Great Job Myth (December 22, 2009)
- A Convergence of Higher Education and Quality of Life (May 17, 2010)
- My Fulfilling Life in Michigan (November 30, 2009)