It’s time to reverse Philadelphia’s ‘brain drain’

    Over 300 graduating students from 19 Philadelphia-area colleges and universities are shown throwing their mortarboards in the air on the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art in a 2012 ceremony. (Alex Brandon/AP Photo, file)

    Over 300 graduating students from 19 Philadelphia-area colleges and universities are shown throwing their mortarboards in the air on the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art in a 2012 ceremony. (Alex Brandon/AP Photo, file)

    There’s no question that, when it comes to higher education, Philly has the best offerings of any metro. But after the diploma is in hand, ink barely dry, nearly 40 percent of Philly’s college graduates seek greener pastures outside of the city. 

    There’s no question that, when it comes to higher education, Philly has the best offerings of any metro. From Ivy Leaguer University of Pennsylvania to state-funded Temple University, and all the smaller public and private schools in between, students from around the nation and the world are working harder than ever to earn a diploma from a school based in Philadelphia.

    But after the diploma is in hand, ink barely dry, nearly 40 percent of Philly’s college graduates seek greener pastures outside of the city. That’s according to a 2010 survey by Campus Philly, a local non-profit working to connect the city’s college students with resources and internships. According to Campus Philly’s president Deborah Diamond, the Philadelphia region produces an impressive 84,000 college graduates per year. If the findings of the 2010 survey still hold true, that’s a loss of 33,600 employees to our local economy.

    What’s inspiring the mass exodus of our would-be workforce and entrepreneurial class, taking their degrees — and our hopes and dreams of a more prosperous city — with them? The answer to that question holds both employers and would-be employees accountable.

    The land of missed opportunities

    For a metro area boasting 90 colleges and universities, Philadelphia has experienced surprisingly little growth in its biggest industries.

    According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, companies in the professional and business services sector added only 7,400 jobs over the course of 12 months, or a 1.7 percent increase. The city’s tourism industry managed to come in second with a 1.3 percent increase, or 3,400 new jobs.

    That’s almost 11,000 new jobs. When you factor in the thousands of Philadelphia area college graduates seeking their first post-school job and the city’s 6.4% unemployed population still looking for work, it’s not a pretty picture.

    The picture gets more grim when you realize that the Bureau’s numbers include part-time jobs.

    “The lack of wage growth is a concern, because it’s declining around the country,” said Chris Swann, vice president of research at Select Greater Philadelphia. “We talk about jobs, but we don’t address the wage side of the problem.”

    For graduates facing student loan debt, the pressure to find a job that covers the cost of living and debt repayment can force them to take on employment with woefully inadequate compensation. Lower wages means less spending power, and that limits both the amount of money going into Philadelphia businesses and eventually the ability of those businesses to add jobs to their payroll.

    If graduates cannot find competitive wages in the city where they earned their degree, they’re tempted to look elsewhere. Imagine if each of the 33,600 graduates moving out of the city were poised to earn $40,000 in their first post-university job.

    That’s $1.3 billion leaving the city, for those keeping track.  

    Bringing home the businesses

    So what will it take to keep our talented graduates in the area and boost the city’s economy?

    For starters, the city could bring in more companies to create more jobs and competitive wages. One of the most effective ways to encourage new business creation is through incentives.

    Philadelphia lost two high-profile companies to the state of New Jersey in 2013 as the result of multi-million dollar incentive deals from the Garden State, with further tax breaks to come if both companies add more jobs to the state’s economy. Startups and companies contemplating New York have the prospect of doing business there 100 percent tax-free for the first 10 years.

    Pennsylvania’s state government does offer tax incentives for businesses already in the state, including the Job Creation Tax Credit program that offers $1,000 per job created. Compared to the offerings of New Jersey and New York however, these incentives are miniscule and do little to attract out-of-state companies.

    If The Powers That Be in Philadelphia and Harrisburg want to see an increase in economic growth, they owe it to themselves and the 90 institutions of higher education cultivating their workforce to get with the times and give companies a reason to see the City of Brotherly Love as the “it” city for business perks. Incentives will bring the businesses and the competitive wages.

    Finding salvation through internships and networking

    Attracting new businesses with incentive programs is only one way to clog the city’s brain drain. Graduates must also become stronger job candidates by gaining hands-on experience before they even get to commencement.

    “People are looking for real experience; they want to see if you can function like a business person,” said Steve Borrelli, a professional coach who advises job seekers throughout Pennsylvania. “If you didn’t do an internship during your college experience, that’s a big negative.”

    It’s a sentiment echoed by Deborah Diamond. “Students have to enter the job market before they graduate to be successful after they graduate, which is why Campus Philly places a lot of emphasis on internships.”

    Diamond’s reasoning stemmed from the emergence of the digital job search.

    “In the 2000s, when so many employers moved their recruiting online, it became very easy for college students to apply for tons and tons of jobs, but it became difficult for employers to sift through all those applications,” she said. “Relationship-building and networking and internships are critical strategies for students to get a job.”

    Not all internships lead to a job offer, though acquiring skills and wowing the internship supervisor can lead to greater opportunities down the line.

    Knowledge is power

    The biggest takeaway for Philadelphia-area college juniors and seniors should be the idea that it’s never too early to prepare for the first post-college job. Studying the city’s business landscape and knowing what industries are growing can help narrow the scope of the search.

    It’s also worthwhile for students to embrace the sad-but-true possibility that they may not get a job in their major. Only 27 percent of college grads today are working in a position that closely relates to what they studied. As long as students have a general idea of how a job fits with their life goals and aspirations, a degree (and the skills gained from internship experience) can be tailored to serve the needs of multiple industries.

    For Chris Swann, the most successful job seekers pay attention to industry trends and adapt their skill set based on those trends to be more competitive in the buyer’s market.

    “The field may be growing, but the type of degrees in demand may be different,” he said. “If someone is talented, they will adapt. The rest of us did.”

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