Tapping the gold mine of college talent

Students need to be exposed to region’s opportunities

THIS IS A GOLDEN AGE for the Boston economy. We’re first by a mile in health care. The national leader in biotech. Surging in big data, robotics, fintech, data storage, clean tech and cybersecurity. A world leader in asset management. And witness to an unprecedented construction boom. There’s no regional economy in the country that has more going for it.

But the ingredient we lack most is enough people to drive the economy forward.

Massachusetts, with a relatively old workforce, faces a retirement wave in a few years that may crimp economic growth. Already there’s intense competition for software engineers, data scientists, biochemists, and a slew of tech and science-related positions. In truth, the Commonwealth needs college-educated talent of all kinds: teachers, nurses, and accountants, for example, are all expected to be in short supply.

The irony is Boston’s single greatest economic advantage is its abundance of college students. The city alone generates 60,000 graduates with four-year degrees or higher every year. And more students from overseas flock here every year. It’s a gold mine of talent, but the region doesn’t do enough to tap it.

Students generally go through college cocooned from the real world. While some students gain significant exposure to the local economy, they are a relative minority. Northeastern’s education model is one obvious exception, for it pivots on real-world engagement during the undergraduate years, likely one reason NU has seen a spike in applications. Other colleges and universities have strong partnerships with specific companies, such as UMass Lowell and Raytheon.

Too many students, however, know next to nothing about the vast range of opportunities right under their noses. And it’s not their fault — learning about and experiencing the local economy often doesn’t receive enough emphasis as an educational priority.

The Massachusetts Technology Collaborative has taken a lead in recognizing the need to better connect the dots between students and the companies that need emerging talent. It just announced it will fund the New England Venture Capital Association’s TechGen 2.0, a website that connects students and companies. So far, about 1,500 students have participated in the program.

Yet more needs to be done to capture the imaginations of students beyond those who are most in demand. For one, it could leave a powerful impression on undergrads if more students could see with their own eyes what’s happening at places like MassChallenge and the Cambridge Innovation Center. Why not a robotics tour to five leading companies when engineering students start their sophomore year? And a day off for math majors to visit financial services giants Fidelity, Liberty Mutual, and State Street Corp.? What if it were a requirement that all business majors attend at least one Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce networking event? The sooner new college students gain local business exposure, the better.

We’re first in the world in many things and finish last in bragging about them. Our modesty doesn’t serve us well. It’s a missed opportunity when reasonably smart kids studying marketing, history, or communications, and who think they might want to stay in Boston, don’t have at least a passing familiarity with dozens of potential options to get a foothold in the local economy.

Meet the Author

George Donnelly

Vice president, Northwind Strategies
Boston doesn’t face a brain drain. But it could do a better job at brain capture. Too much talent slips through its fingers, unaware of what Boston and Massachusetts as a whole has to offer.

George Donnelly is the author of “The Boston Economy: Understanding and Accessing One of the World’s Greatest Job Markets.” He is a vice president at Northwind Strategies.