Students to advise mayor on retaining talent

“Every major city in America is trying to figure out how to retain bright young people,” Mayor George Heartwell told a class of public administration students on August 28, making good on one of three themes in his 2014 State of the City speech, in which he described a partnership with GVSU through a course focused on retaining talent. The students will function as a “team of consultants” for the mayor, according to President Haas. Really, no pressure.

The students, dressed in their professional best, were honored with a visit from Mayor Heartwell and President Haas on the second day of this high-profile community-based learning course taught by Professor Mark Hoffman from the School of Public, Nonprofit, and Health Administration. The course, entitled “Attracting College Graduates to Grand Rapids: A Student-Driven Model,” has drawn thirteen students with diverse majors ranging from business management to environmental studies, philosophy, and more.

The mayor asked the students to dive deep into what makes people stay in Grand Rapids or leave, including looking at the role of race and race relations. “Don’t come back with a feel-good report,” he urged the students. Emphasizing GVSU’s learning outcomes, President Haas encouraged students to employ past experiences, to test assumptions and myths, and to think about climate and culture. “Are we a global community,” he asked? “Let’s find that out.”

As a first step, the class will review a series of reports provided by the Transformation Research Analysis Team (TRAT), an ongoing partnership between the City of Grand Rapids and Grand Valley State University. The reports were gathered over the summer by TRAT intern Alex Melton, who provides background research for projects as requested by city departments.

In one of seven reports, survey information about talent retention was gathered from college graduates regarding where they end up after graduation and why, along with their perceptions of West Michigan and Grand Rapids in particular. Other reports include demographics about who is moving in and out of Michigan, West Michigan programs focused on retaining college graduates, and what big cities are doing to retain student talent.

“What I found is that Grand Rapids, like many cities, has had to deal with the effects of brain drain, the phenomenon in which highly mobile college graduates are moving to bigger cities or metropolitan areas looking for an urban experience,” said Melton. “Grand Rapids is trying to counter that phenomenon by employing initiatives—such as this class—in order to attract and retain students. The city is looking at different areas that need bolstering, and this course is designed to look at what college graduates want from Grand Rapids and what keeps them here, all from the student perspective.”

After reviewing the reports, the class will host a series of speakers on topics such as downtown development, neighborhoods, sustainability, diversity, the arts, and first-hand accountings of what cities like Detroit and Austin are doing to retain talent. The students’ task is to digest this information, sift through the data and ideas, and develop a set of action recommendations to present to the Grand Rapids City Commissioners on December 2.

This partnership provides an opportunity for the City of Grand Rapids to work with student consultants to gain information about talent retention straight from the source. This partnership is just one of many between Grand Valley State University and the City of Grand Rapids.


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