Lehigh Valley aims to attract recent college graduates

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Once tassels have been turned and diplomas neatly framed, now Lehigh graduates will be ready to embark on the next stage of their lives. Some will continue to call the Lehigh Valley their home, however, many will leave the area to pursue internships and jobs in larger cities.

According to an article by CityLab, “College grads are a key driver of innovation and economic development, and are closely connected to the wealth and affluence of cities and metros according to a large number of studies.”

A study conducted by Jonathan Rothwell at the Brookings Institution’s metropolitan policy program pointed out that some of the lowest retention rates of college graduates can be found in small college towns with prestigious universities.

These are often the areas in need of college graduates to boost the economy and local talent supply.

“It’s more common to see our students go to some of the larger cities,” said Karen Kuczynski, the director of career and professional development at Lehigh. “(If) you think about the population, or you think about the industries or the employers that are recruiting at Lehigh — they’re based in some of these larger cities.”

Out of the 53,608 Lehigh alumni registered on LinkedIn, about 13 percent, or 6,856, live in the Allentown area, while almost 25 percent, or 13,344, live in the greater New York City area.

Although many alumni choose to live and work in larger metros like New York City, Kuczynski said this does not mean students do not stay in the Lehigh Valley.

Kendal Jacobus, ’18, plans to stay in the area to work for Sanofi Pasteur, a pharmaceutical company based in Swiftwater, Pennsylvania. Jacobus will work there for six months, spend a year completing a rotation somewhere else in the country and then return to Swiftwater to work in marketing for one year before deciding on a full-time position.

“I decided to stay in the Lehigh Valley mainly because I just really love (Sanofi Pasteur),” Jacobus said. “I’ll also have the chance to move around and I’ll have people I know within the area when I am here, so, socially, this wasn’t going to be a big scary change.”

Despite her decision to remain the area, Jacobus said many students leave the Lehigh Valley for a variety of reasons.

“I think everyone has had a positive experience here for the most part, but I think when you get to graduation you are ready to move somewhere different and truly feel like you graduated and are moving on to the next step in your life,” Jacobus said.

In addition to stepping out into the “real world,” Jacobus said students’ decision to stay or go is also contingent on the field they want to work in after graduation. She said the Lehigh Valley has many great opportunities in pharmaceuticals and the health care industry because of St. Luke’s presence in the area, but strong alumni relationships often attract students to places like New York and Philadelphia.

Karianne Gelinas, the director of talent supply of the Lehigh Valley Economic Development Corporation, said the LVEDC began a study in late 2017 to better understand talent supply and demand gaps in Lehigh Valley industries. The study focuses on the bio-life sciences, healthcare, manufacturing, high-value business services, and transportation and logistics industries.

“We chose those industries due to their potential for growth, the large portion of the population that they employ and also the skills-gap that those industries are seeing,” Gelinas said.

Gelinas said the LVEDC is working to create a “feedback loop” in which post-secondary institutions are linked with potential employers.

“If an employer is saying, ‘Hey, I’m having a really hard time filling these positions,’ we seek to then loop back in those post-secondary institutions to say, ‘We need to work on amplifying the message that in the Valley, there’s a demand for more, for example, civil engineers,’” Gelinas said.

Gelinas said it is important that students learn about the employment opportunities available in the Lehigh Valley.

Sam Berkman, ’18, plans to live and work in the Lehigh Valley because of the low cost of living.

“I decided to stay in the Lehigh Valley for a mix of reasons,” Berkman said. “It’s close to my home in West Chester, Pennsylvania and it’s very, very cheap living, especially in Bethlehem. It’s $300 or $400 a month for rent and pretty much everywhere else I was looking costs much more.”

The ability to save money, in addition to changes within the community, economy and local culture, might also play a role in college graduate retention in the Lehigh Valley.

“If you look at the three major cities here — Allentown, Bethlehem and Easton —  all three areas are going through rejuvenation,” Kuczynski said. “I think there could be an interesting turn in the next few years.”

This period of revitalization — in the Lehigh Valley’s city centers, arts culture and development — which has attracted businesses to the area, as well as Lehigh’s growing connections with local organizations and employers like ArtsQuest, Olympus, Lutron and B. Braun, are what Kuczynski attributes to an increased desire to stay put post-graduation.

“We have all this talent come here,” Kuczynski said. “Wouldn’t it be nice for some of it to stay?”

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