How Philadelphia Attracts (and Keeps) Young Talent

Image credit: Campus Philly

With their top-notch universities, tech companies, museums, restaurants, and more, cities like New York and San Francisco have little trouble attracting the best and brightest. But where does that leave the rest of their urban competitors? Now more than ever, cities require a strategy for leveraging their local assets to capture new creative talent.

On June 5–6, the NYUSPS Urban Lab at the Schack Institute of Real Estate will partner with City Nation Place for a two-day conference on strategic place branding and marketing. Among the conference lineup is a panel discussion on how cities can gain a competitive edge through talent attraction. In preparation for the event, we caught up with Deborah Diamond, one of the panelists and the President of Campus Philly, an organization that engages regional college students and helps them thrive after graduation.

Campus Philly serves as a bridge between talent and opportunity. What do you consider the main barriers to students seeking employment?

One of the biggest barriers is that 18 to 21 year olds often don’t know what people do for a living. Only a small portion are pursuing a defined profession when they get to college (medicine, engineering, and teaching). As one student at a Campus Philly career event said, “I realized I don’t know what people do, like for work.” We create meet-ups for students and young professionals around key industries so students can learn what an account manager at a creative agency does, what a project manager at a nonprofit does, or what a data analyst at a consumer product company does. This helps students understand what skills they might want to use at work and what employers and industries there are in our region. 
 
It’s no secret that one of Great Philadelphia’s key assets is its high concentration of colleges and universities. How has Campus Philly leveraged this strength to attract students from outside the local area?

When Campus Philly started in 2004, many of our partner colleges and universities didn’t showcase that they were located in or near Philadelphia. Now, 14 years later, our partners have grown and they’re all hungry to create a tie between their campuses and Philadelphia. One reason schools outside of Philadelphia like the University of Delaware or Lehigh University are part of the Campus Philly partnership now is because Philadelphia’s center of gravity — for internships, jobs, dining, entertainment — is so much stronger.

“We’re the only region in the country that creates a city-wide welcome to all college students.”

We do a few things to help our partner schools reach students outside the region: We create a great “Insider Guide” to Philadelphia for students and print 90,000 each year. All of our partner admissions offices use this guide when they’re on the road to promote how easy and accessible Philadelphia is for students. This year, we coordinated an effort with the mayor so that every student admitted to Drexel, Temple, and LaSalle got a letter from the mayor saying, “You should come to school in Philly, because we’re going to offer you a great experience and you’re going to make a real difference here, too.” 
 
Greater Philadelphia has a higher retention rate than competing metros like Boston or Baltimore, with 67 percent of current college students saying they want to stay in Philadelphia after graduating. What makes these graduates want to live in the same area where they went to school?

We’d like to think that Campus Philly is the reason so many students are staying in Philly after they graduate! Certainly 14 years of continued outreach, engagement, and network-building with and for students has made a difference in our region. We’re the only region in the country that creates a city-wide welcome to all college students at CollegeFest, then follows that up with curated newsletters, events, and programs all year long, and finally provides students with links to employers through a really robust internship program. When you put that outreach together with a city that is growing jobs (job growth in Philadelphia exceeded New York City’s for the past two years) and is extremely affordable relative to our neighbors to the north and south (NYC and D.C.), it’s a winning combination to drive retention. 
 
From 2013 to 2016, the number of STEM degrees conferred in Greater Philadelphia rose by 11 percent. Explain the reason for this increase, and how Campus Philly is using it to entice new residents.
 
Students are sensitive to the market, just like anyone else, and so we’re seeing a growing number of STEM majors (and a declining number of liberal arts majors). Campus Philly is using this insight in a couple of ways. First, we make sure our employers know about it. We publish the number of STEM majors in Greater Philadelphia in part so our employers and those thinking of moving or starting a business here know that we generate our own talent and don’t have to import it. And second, we have grown the number of events we’re involved in that are STEM specific, from our own Wired Philly event (which connects these majors to employers in some likely and unlikely industries) to participating in Philly Tech Week and the Philadelphia Science Festival. 
 
In recent years, your organization has focused on attracting millennial talent. Given that millennials are often drawn to dense cultural and economic hubs like New York and San Francisco, what is your strategy for outpacing these competitors?
 
We don’t think in terms of outpacing other cities, but rather shaping the future of Philadelphia in the best way possible. We’re a city of 1.5 million residents, but built for two million people. After decades of declining population, we’ve experienced ten straight years of population growth, which is driving more job opportunity, more revenue for city services, and improved neighborhoods. Our question is, how can we build on that growth in a way that integrates those in our city who have been left behind, continue to welcome newcomers to vibrant neighborhoods, and maintain the qualities that make Philadelphia unique (like our Super Bowl championship)? 
 
Campus Philly is often lauded as an example of a successful public-private partnership. What can cities learn from your work with the City of Philadelphia and other local institutions?

We’re lucky to have a diverse revenue stream from our 34 higher education partners, 40-plus employer members, and the City of Philadelphia. But it is no small feat maintaining all of those partnerships in a way that drives value for them and allows us to stay mission-focused. We’ve found that if we concentrate on the student — his or her needs in college, over the summer, after graduation — then we’re benefiting all of our other partners as well. So that’s what we do. We are single-mindedly focused on the student and the question, “Will this make her fall in love with Philadelphia?” Turns out, the answer is “yes!” more often than not.

Deborah Diamond has served as the President of Campus Philly since October 2010, doubling the organization’s partnerships, budget, staff, and programs in that time. Prior to Campus Philly, Deborah was Vice President at The Melior Group, a market research and consulting firm in Philadelphia, and served as a Director of Research and Strategy at Visit Philadelphia, the regional tourism marketing organization from 2003 to 2008.