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Opinion: Don’t overlook community in retention efforts

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As we think about strategies to help Springfield win the competition with other cities for quality jobs and talent, one of our best opportunities is connecting with students attending colleges and universities in the region. Thousands of students who live here for several years while pursuing an education should be a great source of talent for growing companies.

Our higher education institutions have been incredibly innovative in constructing degree, training and research programs that build an environment to create and attract quality jobs with great potential for retaining graduates. Missouri State University’s Jordan Valley Innovation Center and the Efactory are prime examples; they focus on supporting private-sector research and business growth, and they provide students with the experiential learning and training needed to pursue careers in these areas. 

At Ozarks Technical Community College, the Center for Advanced Manufacturing and Technology will strengthen our capacity to become a professional hub for careers in manufacturing. That, in turn, helps us grow that industry sector and build the capacity to keep more graduates here.

There’s more we can do to retain students to grow our workforce and economy. On its Community Leadership Visit to Boise, Idaho, in 2017, the Springfield Area Chamber of Commerce focused on that city’s placemaking efforts to retain young professionals to both grow their talent pool and increase diversity. Their 2% annual population growth rate means that by the end of this decade, Boise will grow by more than 100,000 new residents in its metro area.

One of the other keys to their retention strategy was making young professionals feel connected. It’s harder to take a job in another city when you are tethered by strong relationships and have a stake in your community’s future.

While many local businesses and organizations are acting on this principle to retain young professionals, it also can be applied to college students. How can we be more intentional in connecting them to our community and make the case that staying in Springfield is a desirable option?

The Network for Springfield’s Young Professionals, a committee of the chamber, has been focused on answering that question and has developed a more robust outreach program to start establishing the relationship between college students and Springfield. Since 2017, The Network’s College Student Outreach Task Force has been leading in this direction and with a new presentation created in mid-2018, the group took the message of being a young professional in Springfield to over 500 students. In 2019, the task force increased the goal to 800. The outreach program’s objective is to showcase opportunities Springfield offers young professionals and speak to the misconceptions commonly held.

Perhaps the most important part of this process has been gathering qualitative data. In a survey prior to our presentations, we ask students about the factors that will lead them to determine where they will live after graduation, their impression of Springfield and how likely they are to live in the Queen City after they graduate.

There are some common misconceptions we are working to hit head on: Springfield is too small, there’s no opportunity for career advancement and there’s not enough access to the outdoors.

Resources used in the presentation, housed on the LiveInSpringfieldMo.com website, provide plenty of data and testimonial information that debunk these notions. Those who’ve helped in the presentations tell me the students appreciate being asked to consider staying here.

In their own initiatives to create inclusive culture and positive campus experiences, our higher education partners have established a strong foundation for building student connections to the community. Other civic organizations also have been working in this area. Among others, for example, Minorities in Business is working to create an initiative to engage college students in the community and connect them with mentoring and leadership opportunities.

It’s important we empower students to see themselves here in the future, enjoying great quality of life built on real assets like housing affordability, close proximity to the outdoor recreational opportunities of the Ozarks and working in a strong local economy. The more we can welcome and engage them in volunteer opportunities, internships and community events, the more they can make the connections that help in deciding to remain after graduation or to return in the future.

Paden Wilcox, chairman of The Network for Springfield’s Young Professionals Leadership Council, is the business development manager at Computer Recycling Center LLC. He can be reached at paden@computerrecyclingcenter.com.

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