Doing Better at Doing Good

Doing Better: NC needs more effective strategy to keep young talent in state

CorrespondentsJune 21, 2014 

Educating our students to compete in a global economy is one of the most important obligations we have. As we shared in our last column, the College Advising Corps, the Raleigh Promise Initiative and other efforts are ensuring that more students are getting into and through college. But what are we doing to retain talented students upon graduation?

A study from the N.C. Commission on Workforce Development estimates that the state needs about 34,000 more graduates annually with two-year, four-year and advanced degrees. Fortunately, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, we are a “brain gain” state, with more students coming to study here than students leaving to study elsewhere. Yet recent data from the U.S. Census Bureau show that we have an annual loss of students once they graduate.

Some students are attracted to our state’s great universities but head home once they graduate. Others are lured to cities such as New York City, San Francisco or Seattle. But to remain competitive, we have to work to keep as much talent here as possible. Moreover, while we have a positive talent flow into our metro regions such as Charlotte and the Triangle, the Triad, Greenville, Fayetteville and other communities are having a harder time attracting and retaining high-quality talent.

Internship strategy

A recent Gallup Poll of 40,000 people found that three main qualities make places attractive to live in: social offerings, openness and community aesthetics. Studies also show that students who have a formative experience in the community while in school through an internship or volunteer opportunity are much more likely to stay in the community once they graduate.

Yet, often students and employers conduct their own inefficient matchmaking dance – squandering time, talent, and resources. And once students have landed prized internships, they often still remain disconnected from the best of what a city has to offer.

Can we do better? Undoubtedly. Imagine a well-coordinated internship strategy launched by a city that is determined to attract and retain world-class talent. Local companies would participate in a central internship bank. A joint marketing and outreach effort would be rolled out to top school prospects. Once the intern army arrived, the red carpet could be rolled out – connecting interns with one another, with other young professionals and with the city’s cool offerings. Success would be measured by how many interns return once they graduate. With a few years of effort, a city could create enough density of young talent that it would further strengthen its ability to attract and retain talent – creating a positive flywheel effect.

Already, we are finding ways to harness the entrepreneurial spirit emerging from our universities. ThinkHouse in Raleigh’s Boylan Heights neighborhood is an example. Started by the founders of the entrepreneurial co-working space HQ Raleigh (including Christopher), ThinkHouse is designed to recruit and retain aspiring entrepreneurs through a rigorous 10-month living-learning experience. Located in a renovated seven-bedroom, eight-bathroom house, ThinkHouse provides recent college graduates with a highly supportive incubation period including extensive mentorship, business coaching, and leadership development, all within an accountable peer-learning environment. ThinkHouse Fellows also connect informally with seasoned entrepreneurs, business leaders and local influencers through regular Sunday night dinners.

Triangle entrepreneurs

From this year’s inaugural class, six of the eight fellows have launched scalable enterprises in the Triangle.

They include Zach Milburn, who translated his experience building classified ad platforms at NC State and UNC as an undergraduate into – a local marketplace for services that has launched in Raleigh and is rapidly growing. Sean Maroni is building portable “maker spaces” for universities through his company Betaversity, Jay Dawkins is leveraging social media to get young people engaged in public decision-making through Cityzen, and Keegan Guizard is connecting skateboarders and education through a national Collegiate Skate Tour. Lance Cassidy is using his extensive user-design experience to create a new diet-tracking platform called Healthy Bytes and Saul Flores is building a new way to deliver customized news content through Bridge. David Shaner has launched Offline, which updates locals in Raleigh and Durham on unique community happenings through customized content. While at ThinkHouse, Shaner raised a round of capital, expanded into a new market, saw use of the site grow exponentially, and even got engaged.

So far, 25 candidates have applied for ThinkHouse’s fellowships next fall. Similar living-learning strategies to attract and retain early-career teachers and health care professionals are now on the drawing board.

Our ability to compete as a state is highly dependent on the quality of our talent. We can get even more intentional about developing, recruiting and retaining it.

Christopher Gergen is CEO of Forward Impact, a fellow in Innovation and Entrepreneurship at Duke University, and author of “Life Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives.” Stephen Martin, a director at the nonprofit Center for Creative Leadership, blogs at They can be reached at and followed on Twitter through @cgergen.

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