A City Bets that if You Intern There, You Stay There

Baton Rouge, La., has struggled with brain drain for years—and the local chamber of commerce is pushing back using tech to get more students internships, and hopefully jobs, with local employers.

Baton Rouge may be a state capital and the second largest city in Louisiana, but it struggles with the kind of brain drain many smaller cities face. 

Students across the region vie to attend Louisiana State University, or one of several other local colleges—but when they graduate, they don’t tend to stay for work.

The big idea: The Baton Rouge Area Chamber (BRAC) had seen this happen for years, and by 2018, knew it had to be addressed. That year, the metro area saw 6K more people leave than move in, and 3K of those were under the age of 44.

As the chamber dug into the problem, its research started to point in one clear direction—internships. Students who had local internships were much more likely to stay after graduation, says Maggi Spurlock, the director of talent at BRAC. The city just needed to find a way to promote the opportunities that exist in the region.

It’s a shift in thinking that economic development groups across the country are making, says Morgan Almeida, senior vice president of marketing for BRAC. Business attraction used to be “king,” she says, but now it’s talent attraction.

The details: LSU, which is the dominant player in the market, and Southern University were already using the Handshake networking and recruitment platform, so the chamber zeroed in on that solution. They just needed to get other area colleges and vastly more local employers on board—no easy task amid the beginning of the pandemic.

This partnership has made Baton Rouge one of the only regions in the United States to have all its higher education institutions—including community colleges like Baton Rouge and River Parishes—on the same employer recruiting platform.

The approach has made it easier for small and mid-sized businesses to reach students with internship and job opportunities, Spurlock says. And it’s helped broaden the pool of students employers recruit from, providing more opportunities for Black and Latino students, first-generation college-goers, and working adults. Rather than just reflexively turning to the flagship, businesses can now easily tap into talent at all the local four-year and two-year colleges.

“From an equity position, it’s been really wonderful to see those other institutions get that involvement from businesses,” says Spurlock.

The Demand Side

Businesses were initially concerned about the cost, Spurlock says, but the platform is free and relatively easy for them to use. BRAC works with local businesses to train employers how to create and maintain internship programs, and to create recruiting profiles.

Since the initiative officially launched in 2020, the region has seen a steady increase in the number of employers joining Handshake, and the number of internships posted on the site. The number of regional employers registered to interact with LSU’s students has grown from 2.1K in 2021 to 3.9K last year, and Southern has seen its employer numbers more than double in that time, to 1.6K. The percentage of their students on the platform has been growing too.

BRAC is working to be able to provide numbers for other colleges in the future.

The demand: Baton Rouge is setting records for job growth, and is expected to add nearly 17K jobs by 2025. The labor force participation rate has risen back to pre-pandemic levels, and the unemployment rate is lower than the state and national average.

However, population growth has been relatively flat, and last year, more people left the region than moved to it. (The pandemic had briefly reversed that trend.) Younger people, age 25-34, account for nearly all the net-negative migration. In a survey of local business leaders, 21% said that a lack of qualified talent is having a significant negative impact on their business.

Photo by Life Of Pix via Pexels

On the ground: Turner Industries Group, which has its corporate office in Baton Rouge, has long had strong relationships with colleges in the region, but having all of them on the same platform has streamlined the energy and effort it takes to recruit, says Elizabeth Beckham, the company’s learning and development manager. This includes finding recruiting events, and keeping track of all the career services offices and logins for various accounts. 

That allows the company to put more energy into deepening its partnerships, Beckham says. 

Turner provides construction and industrial services to fuel and energy companies, and has seen an increased demand for skilled labor over the past few years. Beckham says that while the company has a large footprint in the state, it can still be hard to recruit for the construction field because people are unclear what exactly it entails.

Turner started using Handshake in 2018 because LSU had migrated to the platform, and the company wanted to continue to tap into the flagship university’s robust construction management program. 

Beckham says that, as recruiters used the platform more and additional colleges came on board, the company realized how beneficial the initiative was for finding new pools of students to recruit. LSU may have been the catalyst, she says, but Turner stays for the broad talent pool. 

One-stop shop: The team at the chamber says having a unified platform has been especially beneficial in helping lighten the recruiting load for small and mid-sized businesses. And it’s getting more businesses in the door with institutions. 

Students are not only seeing job postings from local businesses, Spurlock says, they’re going out of their way to look for them.

It “shifted the narrative,” Almeida says, and “opened up [the] business community to a larger talent pool.” 

‘More Like an Even Playing Field’

Prior to 2020, Handshake had only worked with two or three community colleges as a pilot program, says Christine Cruzvergara, chief education strategy officer at Handshake. Baton Rouge Community College was one of their earliest two-year college partners. Cruzvergara says that two-year institutions benefit from being on the same platform as four-year ones. 

“It’s been a great experience working with our community partners,” she says.

Mobility without moving: Giving students more access to local and regional employers opens up options for all students, but especially those who are underrepresented in higher education or particular career fields, Cruzvergara says.

She also says that connecting students with local employers doesn’t just help a community to fight brain drain. It’s also beneficial to students who may not be able to move to another area for a job or internship—whether because of affordability or family responsibility. Staying local can be good for both students and the community.

BRCC has been using Handshake since 2020, when it transitioned through the platform’s pilot program and the regional chamber initiative. Despite being one of the few and earliest community colleges to join the platform, BRCC says they fit in and there was strong buy-in on campus.

“Having this access to job opportunities and internships for nontraditional and underrepresented students allows them to find a career that is more related to their skills and training,” college officials said in a statement. “These students have the ability to find jobs that accommodate their schedules with employers who are looking to hire BRCC students and graduates.”

The nitty-gritty: There were, however, some initial issues with transferring data from their legacy database. Not all job postings, student resumes, career fair data, and student analytics were retained through the transition. This means that there is not enough historical data to determine any change in the number of students who now stay in Baton Rouge after graduating, nor if there has been an increase in the number of students who obtain internships or jobs.

BRCC says that Handshake has “helped tremendously” in reducing their staff workload. Having a one-stop-shop has eliminated the need for individual employers to contact a career services representative for each individual job posting. The platform also provides the college’s career services office with data and analytics to monitor student’s job applications. And it provides students with “great examples” they can reference when building their resumes.

“It feels more like an even playing field,” college officials said. “The industries that are looking to hire the students from Baton Rouge Community College are the industries that utilize the platform and are interested in our students.”

Looking ahead: Cruzvergara and Spurlock both say that other communities in Louisiana and beyond are interested in following Baton Rouge’s model.

“The area chamber has done a really good job of educating employers and that is something, if other folks want to replicate, that is important to do,” Cruzvergara says. 

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