After four years here, Angie Paulson was sold. The scenery, the easygoing lifestyle — this is it.
“If there was a chance for me to stay in Duluth, I would 100 percent take it,” said the marketing major who graduated from the University of Minnesota Duluth on Saturday. “Unfortunately I haven’t found any opportunities.”
As she heads down the interstate to find work, she won’t be alone. For most UMD grads, their diploma is a ticket out of town.
“Only one person I know has found a full-time job in Duluth,” Paulson said.
Just a quarter of Bulldogs find a job here after graduation, but it’s clear that more than one in four want to stay. It’s also clear that more graduates are needed in and around Duluth to make up for an aging workforce swiftly heading into retirement.
But as things stand, students say they have to hustle if they want to stick around — that or take their pick from any number of higher-paying jobs in the Twin Cities. For local businesses that want to recruit and retain recent grads, experts say they need to take a harder look at offering internships and training for entry-level positions. It would also help if the university and the city looked more like one community and less like two distinct bubbles, many observers have pointed out.
“It’s a partnership that needs to include the university and colleges and businesses and city government. We all play key roles,” said UMD Chancellor Lendley Black. “My approach is let’s be partners and better bridge with each other. This community has so much to offer, and could have even more to offer as we try to find some solutions.”
Jill Custer wanted to stay, so she did everything she could: She started small and waited.
“I was applying to any and all jobs that I could in Duluth,” said the 2011 English graduate. “I knew UMD was a good employer, and I was lucky enough to get a job in the chemistry department in clerical work before I made the leap into development” at the medical school campus.
In a city where education and health care account for more than a quarter of all jobs, Custer found the door to employment wide open even in the wake of a major recession. So her advice for students who want to follow in her footsteps may depend on their field of study.
“Get your foot in the door somewhere and you’ll likely be able to find a path to a full-time job somewhere here in town,” she said.
Other alumni echoed her sentiments, though many have had to take the long way around to find a job locally.
“It takes a lot of networking — it is really who you know,” said Alyssa Schwanke, a 2013 graduate. “I did all of my networking after graduation,” but she wishes she had started sooner.
After moving to a Twin Cities suburb for two years, the Two Harbors native thought, “Man, I really want to come back.”
Black said that’s a recurring theme among graduates who might get their first few years of experience in the Twin Cities but fully intend to return to Duluth.
“Often it’s a result of making connections early on,” he said of those who successfully return.
Schwanke worked with the UMD Alumni Office to make some of those late connections and last fall ended up getting a job at Lake Superior College in workforce development.
Two-year colleges like LSC are more finely tuned to the needs of area employers and build their curriculums around specific needs — so their retention rates are naturally higher. Nationally such institutions place 68 percent of their grads into local jobs, according to the Brookings Institution. LSC is right around that average.
UMD’s 24 percent retention rate, meanwhile, is well below the 44 percent average the think tank calculated for four-year institutions. The College of St. Scholastica has a graduate retention rate of 31 percent, according to an analysis of alumni LinkedIn profiles.
“It depends more on their major or area of interest,” said Ellen Johnson, vice president for enrollment management at CSS. “In the health care field, if they’re wanting to stay they’re able to stay.”
While it is easier for colleges in major metro areas to retain grads — since jobs are bountiful across all industries — UMD’s rate mirrors other small college towns. And though the city does end up gaining more college graduates than it had to begin with, many are slipping away for lack of opportunity — or at least the appearance of such.
“I think it should be higher,” Schwanke said of the retention rate. “The thing for students to keep in mind is you’re not going to get that $90,000 job right away.”
Kyle Caldwell wouldn’t mind that $90,000 job offer if it came locally, but he’s going to stay put regardless.
“I’ve interviewed in the Cities — it’s just a numbers game there,” said the senior in marketing, who is pursuing an MBA. “Two weeks ago I turned them all down and said I’m staying in Duluth. I still don’t have guaranteed work. It takes a big risk to stay here.”
Caldwell, 21, plans to continue offering freelance marketing services to small businesses and make a go of it on his own for as long as he can. It didn’t even occur to him that was a possibility until he joined the Mentor Connection program.
“I just assumed you graduate, go to the Cities and get a job for a corporation, and that’s it. I never knew there were other possibilities, and I think that’s where all my peers are at as well,” Caldwell said. “Without seeing the possibilities that are there, why would you stay?”
Mentor Connection, a program from the regional job site Northforce, pairs students with local business leaders, who then introduce those students to the greater business community. Without that kind of face time, many students don’t realize there is, in fact, a place for them in Duluth.
“It’s helping students get exposed to some of those opportunities, to see if that’s what they want to do and get some exposure,” said Jonathan Ballmer with Gardner Builders, who was Caldwell’s mentor. “Conversely, being in touch with what’s important to the students entering the workforce is just as valuable.”
Northforce young professional and development consultant Krissy Johnson says that to get the talent pipeline to stop pointing out of town, businesses need to start stepping up to make that happen.
“It’s about getting the message out for the community to be able to rally around it together,” she said. “Businesses are going to have to be aware of the fact that they’re going to have to take someone on who may need more shaping and molding into the position.”
If the need isn’t acute now, it will be in a few years. By 2024 more than 38,000 jobs in Northeastern Minnesota will need replacements, largely due to retirements, according to the Department of Employment and Economic Development. While most of those openings will not require a college education, enough will that students and recent graduates should not simply assume there is nothing for them here.
“There are more opportunities now than there have been maybe ever,” Ballmer said. “We recognize there will be a shortage, so how do we attract students to what we’re doing?”
Building and maintaining direct connections between colleges and employers is vital, says employment expert and Michigan State University professor Peter Berg. Small businesses especially need to take advantage of grants and relationships to stay ahead of their workforce needs.
“These relationships have to be looked at as long-term investments,” Berg said. “You need an internship program and to be thinking two to three years down the road.”
Not everyone will have the entrepreneurial spirit Caldwell discovered, after all. But the rules to make it in Duluth after graduation remain the same.
“Duluth really is who you know in the small business community, which is really different than how it is two hours away,” Caldwell said. “It’s a lot of extra work just to stay here.”
Not everyone who wants to stay in Duluth after graduating will be able to. And not everyone who earns a UMD diploma wants to stay.
“I can see myself coming back when I’m a little older,” said Missy Setter, a 22-year-old graduate bound for the Twin Cities. “I don’t have a job lined up, but I like the nightlife, and I feel like there’s more opportunity there.”
Setter, Angie Paulson and Connor Crabtree were among a group of students who interned at Destination Duluth this spring, where they were exposed to the community in a way that campus life just doesn’t allow.
“That’s something I can be thankful for with this experience in particular — it’s forced me to get out and rub elbows,” Crabtree said.
Students are always quick to say they appreciate how compact and consolidated the UMD campus is. You rarely have to venture outside, especially if you live on campus. But that first-year perk turns into a drawback by the time graduates are trying to get hired locally.
“It is a change when you leave the UMD bubble to all of a sudden be a young professional here, especially when you’re not from the area,” said Johnson at Northforce.
To address that, Chancellor Black said he’s focused on building partnerships with the community and getting students involved in all things Duluth.
“We have a very active career development operation trying to get students into internships early in their career,” he said.
Because at the end of the day, “It’s all about who you know in the Duluth business community,” said nearly everyone interviewed for this story.
About half of current UMD students come from the Twin Cities metro area, so it’s no surprise many take internships there during school and return home after graduating.
“Career decision-making is not only what you do but the people that support you and your life surrounding that career, too. And that can be so different for every individual,” said Angie Soderberg, internship program director for UMD’s business school.
The university’s career counseling center also focuses on individual needs, not the community’s.
“Our focus in our office is to help students find employment that relates to their life goals,” said Julie Westlund, director of Career and Internship Services. “This is a labor market issue and employer issue. They need to offer training programs, and they need to attract candidates.”
Still, said Berg, the Michigan State professor, that leaves a blind spot in the local job market.
“Part of that may be the university’s fault if they’re not reaching out to the community saying, ‘Do you have a need for our graduates?” he said.
Despite record-low unemployment and a wave of retirements to come, many businesses may not have an immediate need for recent grads, or perhaps they don’t recognize their needs. Until that changes, the city may keep shipping its future workforce out of town.