CT Officials Aim to Keep College Grads in State: ‘We’ve always had the best talent in the world’

Stamford Advocate 07.10.2021


CT Officials Aim to Keep College Grads in State: ‘We’ve always had the best talent in the world’

By Paul Schott

In June, Connecticut notched one of its biggest-ever months for corporate recruitment as four major companies committed to opening offices and bringing hundreds of jobs to the state. Those announcements were widely cheered by business leaders and elected officials. But those arrivals have also generated debate about whether Connecticut has positioned itself to reverse years of lackluster jobs growth and bolster its ability to keep young professionals. Republican legislators continue to express major concerns about Connecticut’s economic performance, but Gov. Ned Lamont and other Democrats are bullish and point to programs that they said are encouraging recent college graduates to stay in the state.

“I am both confident and eager to continue building my career in Connecticut,” said Evan Duval, who graduated from the University of Connecticut last year and was one of the fellows in the inaugural class of the Governor’s Innovation Fellowship, a career-development program. “The state has so much to offer and has made strides to ignite and support innovation.”


Developing Homegrown Talent

The recent corporate announcements underscored southwestern Connecticut’s standing as a major corporate destination, trend watchers have said. Tobacco giant Philip Morris International is relocating its headquarters to the state from Manhattan, with company officials indicating that they are exploring locations in Fairfield County. Financial-technology firm iCapital Network is opening offices in Greenwich; manufacturer and technology-services provider ITT is moving its headquarters from White Plains, N.Y., to Stamford; and Tomo Networks, a new financial-technology firm focused on real estate, has established its headquarters in Stamford. Those companies have cumulatively committed to creating a total of more than 550 jobs in Connecticut. Statewide, however, Connecticut is still grappling with the disruption unleashed by the coronavirus pandemic. Connecticut’s unemployment rate dropped from 8.1 percent to 7.7 percent in May, but still ran above a 5.8 percent national level. Long before the pandemic emerged, Connecticut had struggled to create jobs. In January 2020, it had recovered only 83 percent of the positions lost in its 2008-2010 recession.

“Young people in Connecticut are graduating to an unemployment pool of over 100,000 people. Connecticut is dead last in the nation in job growth and income growth,” said state Sen. Kevin Kelly, R-Stratford, the Senate’s Republican minority leader. “Generational poverty is a pervasive problem in our state, especially in our cities. Income growth is not keeping up with the cost of living. These are unpleasant truths, but we have to be honest about our state’s weaknesses so that we can improve.”

Officials in Lamont’s administration do not deny the state’s longstanding economic struggles. But they said that they have worked since he took office in January 2019 to reinvigorate the jobs market and make the state more attractive to young professionals. They said that the arrivals of Philip Morris International, iCapital Network, ITT and Tomo showed that the strategy was working. The Lamont administration also cites career-development programs such as the Innovation Fellowship, whose launch was announced in February 2020. GIF is managed by CTNext, an entrepreneurship-focused subsidiary of Connecticut Innovations, the state-chartered venture capital organization, and based on a similar initiative that was launched in 2002 in Indianapolis. The inaugural GIF class included 18 fellows who were recent college graduates. Most of them were alumni of Connecticut universities. They each received a $5,000 grant to help cover housing and other living expenses and also received mentorships and other support services.

“We’ve always had the best talent in the world here in Connecticut,” Lamont said at a June 30 business-networking event in Stamford. “We’ve got to work to keep that going.”

Nearly all of the companies that took part in the pilot phase were companies with headquarters or major offices in Stamford. The 15 participating companies were Curacity, Ellington Management Group, EY, Fletcher Knight, Encaptiv, Freepoint Commodities, Henkel, IronYun, ISG, McKinsey and Co., Noble Savages, Synchrony, Sema4, Trebel Music and Tru Optik.

“We view the program as a great way to identify and bring in talent from Connecticut universities,” said Eric Schadt, founder and CEO of Stamford-based Sema4, which focuses on health care information.

Despite the pandemic’s disruption — and ensuing lack of in-person programming — fellows such as Matthew Sabourin said the program still turned out to be worthwhile. He did his fellowship at Sema4 after graduating last year from Sacred Heart University where he majored in computer science. He works today as a development operations coordinator at Sema4 while also pursuing a master’s degree in cybersecurity at Sacred Heart.

“Throughout the past year, all the fellows would meet virtually a couple of times a month for different types of events,” Sabourin said. “These events were very cool and ranged from making homemade pasta to hearing top entrepreneurs of Connecticut speak and getting to ask them questions about how they became successful. I think that all the fellows were able to gain valuable knowledge from these events, and we were able to become closer,” he said.

Seventeen of the 18 GIF fellows are still employed by the companies where they did their fellowships.

“With the incredible support of GIF, CTNext and my team at Fletcher Knight, I am grateful for the strong foundation and my growing network of Connecticut-based professionals I have met through GIF,” said Duval, the UConn graduate, who majored in psychological science. Fletcher Knight, a marketing-consulting firm based in Stamford, is where she spent her fellowship. She works today at the company as a junior consultant.

Kelly said that the recent corporate announcements and programs such as GIF would have a limited impact and not significantly reduce Connecticut’s jobless numbers or tackle other structural issues.

“A few hundred jobs in the Greenwich-Stamford area and a handful of scholarships for those who have excelled in school is positive, but it’s not transformative nor will it employ 100,000 people,” Kelly said. “It is not a career-growth initiative. It does nothing for the kids struggling to raise themselves up and out of poverty in Hartford. It does nothing for the teen in eastern Connecticut who doesn’t want to pursue college and wants to enter the workforce right out of high school.”

Officials at CTNext said that the program deliberately had a limited scope in its pilot phase to ensure that its premise would work. Now, having seen the program gain traction in Stamford, they said they anticipate expanding GIF to other parts of the state. As a result of the pandemic’s disruption, the next class of GIF fellows is scheduled to start in the summer of 2022, rather than this summer.

“We see this being a program available for the foreseeable future,” said Jessica Dodge, CTNext’s director of programs and operations. “I think this will be something we look to as a cornerstone in talent retention here in Connecticut, which is vital to us in serving small businesses and entrepreneurs.”


Reasons for Staying in Connecticut

Connecticut universities said they are seeing large numbers of graduates stay in the state, a trend that will need to be maintained for the state to complete its recovery from the pandemic-sparked economic downturn. Some 73 percent of the University of Connecticut’s graduating class of 2020 who attended high school in the state and were employed said they were still in Connecticut, according to university data collected up to six months after graduation. For those in the 2020 class who did not attend high school in Connecticut and were employed, 22 percent said that they were working in the state. For Sacred Heart’s class of 2019, 53 percent of its placements for full-time opportunities — including employment and graduate school — were in Connecticut.

“Although we do have a large number of alumni outside of Connecticut, we are finding more and more students are interested in staying local after commencement to continue the professional relationships they have developed throughout their four years at SHU,” said Keith Hassell, Sacred Heart’s executive director of career and professional development.

Cities with vibrant corporate sectors and thriving entrepreneurial scenes such as Stamford, New Haven and Norwalk have generally fared better than other parts of the state in attracting young professionals, data show.

“I strongly believe programs like the Governor’s Innovation Fellowship will contribute to the retention of talent within the state and will show that a place like Stamford is a cool place to live and work,” said Christopher Connolly, who did his fellowship at professional-services firm EY after graduating last year from Fairfield University where he majored in finance.

Today, he is a Stamford-based member of EY’s business consulting practice staff.

“I believe that the opportunities to grow and develop your career in Connecticut are high,” Connolly said. “Stamford is such a young and vibrant city that has so much to offer and has some of the best companies to work for.”