Keeping Young Talent in the Pioneer Valley

When BusinessWest embarked on its recent mission to identify the Forty Under 40 — a compilation of the brightest lights in the local business galaxy — there was excitement, but also a little trepidation.

In short, we were not exactly sure what we’d find or how our list would look when done. After all, there has been considerable talk of a so-called brain drain in this region, and we didn’t know the full extent of the phenomenon.

Suffice it to say that we needn’t have worried. The impressive quantity and quality of nominations yielded more than enough evidence that there is, indeed, a large pool of young talent in this region, including several entrepreneurs who are getting businesses off the ground or taking them to that proverbial next level.

Still, as we prepare to reveal our Forty Under 40 to the community (watch for the May 14th edition of BusinessWest) we acknowledge that the brain drain is real, not just in the Pioneer Valley, but elsewhere in the state. And we’re justifiably concerned about how a Forty Under 40 list might look 10, 20, or 30 years from now and whether it will have the same overall quality.

The movement of young people out of the state or region (there are two migrations occurring) is happening for different reasons. People from, or educated in, Boston and the communities surrounding it are leaving Massachusetts in growing numbers because they simply can’t afford to live here — or at least in the style to which they believe their profession should allow them to. This movement has helped neighboring states like Rhode Island and New Hampshire, but it has also brought cost-of-living prices that are approaching those that prevail around Boston.

The drain from Boston isn’t helping Western Mass. as much — although there has been some movement here for the quality and price of life — in part because the area doesn’t have the depth of cultural attractions or nightlife that exists in most major metropolitan areas. But mostly, this region simply does not have enough good jobs, especially those in the technology sectors, that are attractive to young people today.

Creating more of these job opportunities is a challenging assignment — and efforts are already underway on a number of fronts — but it is critical work, because this region cannot develop a true technology-based economy without a large, talented workforce. And such a workforce is difficult to create if large numbers of talented young people who grew up here or went to one of the Valley’s many colleges wind up leaving for perceived greener pastures.

In nearly every edition of BusinessWest there is a story, or mention, of an individual who grew up the Valley, left because of a perceived need to do so to find professional fulfillment, and then returned years later to enjoy the quality of life found here. What the Valley needs to do is change that equation slightly, and find ways to keep more people from being tempted to leave.

This can only happen through efforts to promote entrepreneurship — several programs are in place at area schools including UMass, Springfield Technical Community College, Western New England College, and Bay Path College, and they need continued support — and steps to improve public education in area cities to ensure that the businesses created in the future have the workforce needed to keep them here.

Meanwhile, area economic development leaders need to work in concert with the state and area colleges, especially UMass, to help strengthen programs designed to covert work in the laboratory into jobs throughout the Pioneer Valley.

Such steps are needed to ensure that some of today’s high school and junior high school students do not wind up on some other region’s Forty Under 40 list someday. Each time that happens, the Valley’s business galaxy loses some of starlight.