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How to Retain Graduates

By Uriah Ward
Opinion Editor

I just got back home from a community roundtable in city hall aimed at retaining skilled workers after they graduate from ECU or PCC. The forum was organized by Councilmen Connelly and Godley and provided a lot of good information for the handful of people who showed up to learn. I wouldn’t say that much progress was made in the way of gathering new information or refining strategies; it was mostly people who already knew about everything talking to each other about everything they knew. But it was definitely a positive step and a good effort to let citizens know what our government is doing for us. I tend to have my fair share of disagreements with Connelly and Godley since they’re the most conservative members of City Council, but this was great and I thank them for organizing it.

I’ve been reflecting on the conversation and pondering this issue since I left the meeting. It focused largely on bringing jobs to Greenville. This is an absolutely critical part of the equation but there is more we need to do to make Greenville a city that new graduates would want to call home. I wish I’d voiced some of these ideas at the meeting today, but hey — maybe our council members are Guardian readers and they’ll see this. Or maybe someone (*nudge*) will share this with them.

I was born in Greenville and I’ve been schooled in Greenville from Eastern Elementary through East Carolina University. I’ve heard my classmates say for years that they’ve got to get out of Greenville and that they don’t feel welcomed or see opportunity here. I decided to stay and I’ve said goodbye to friend after friend who wanted to leave the city I love behind them.
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I can remember a time when I was determined to get out of town and I can remember when that changed. Because of my early interest in politics, I found myself pounding the pavement talking to voters about an upcoming election while I was in High School. I learned about the problems folks were facing in their lives and started to feel invested in them. I started to feel like it was my responsibility to try to help them and (whether right or not) I felt like I would be able to if I worked hard enough. I kept joining campaigns, getting involved in civic groups and serving wherever I could. I wanted to stay in Greenville because I felt invested in the community. But that wasn’t a feeling shared by my classmates. They didn’t feel like they could make a difference in the community and many felt like it didn’t matter anyway.

We need to empower students to make them feel invested in Greenville and to show them that they can make an impact of local affairs. In the last election, the Greeks seems to be engaged fairly well. However, the large majority of students seem uninterested and unengaged. There are a couple things I think we could do to fix this.

Council Members have talked for as long as I can remember about getting students to serve on our local boards and commissions, but these bodies are not well-suited for most students. Most board members serve three year terms. College students tend to have wildly fluctuating schedules and even those who are committed to the issues have extreme difficulty serving a three year term with the same fixed meeting time. What if we did something similar to the youth council? We could have commission specifically for college students that would allow members to serve one year terms. They would have the flexibility to address issues that matter the most to college students while not being put in a situation where it is inherently difficult to fulfill the obligations of service.

One of the most common things that I heard among classmates (and I currently hear from students) is that they can’t stay in a state or a city that is behind the times. We need to start addressing the issues that our students are concerned with to make them feel like this is a place they can live. When I graduated and I was looking pretty much anywhere for a job, I remember looking at NACCO’s hiring website (they’re one of the largest employers in the county) and seeing Greenville described as a “progressive city.” When a city displays that it is forward-thinking, it is more likely that graduates will want to live there and businesses will want to locate there.

We had an opportunity to do this with HB2. North Carolina is being soundly rejected by businesses, conventions and artists due to state action against LGBT individuals. These individuals are among the graduates we’re looking to retain. They are talented and they feel unwelcome (and so do their growing majority of allies). The City Council did pass a resolution against HB2, but it mentioned nothing about discrimination and this community took notice. They saw that our leaders didn’t want the City of Greenville to take a true stand for the LGBT community (has anyone shared this with Connelly and Godley yet?). We could have taken steps to make sure that Greenville was seen as a safe haven in a state that has turned against so many of our citizens. We could have made a lot of our students feel more welcome here instead of making them feel like they need to leave to find a place that will appreciate them.

We will have more opportunities like this coming up. One items that is already waiting to be passed is the Syrian Refugee Resolution. This is another instance where the rest of the state seems to have taken an unwelcoming, hard-conservative position. We need to show that we are a city that welcomes everyone regardless of their race, religion, gender, gender identity, sexuality or nationality. It’s the right thing to do and we open ourselves up to a lot more talent that way.

And we absolutely need to work to improve quality of life. Greenville is growing and I’m excited to see that. But we need to make sure we keep up our investments in roads, sidewalks, parks, greenways and beautification projects. Utilizing the Tar River was one of the major themes of the round table, and it is absolutely critical that we cut down on the pollution in and around the Tar. So, to make our natural resources easier to utilize, we should take up the Plastic Bags Resolution that passed the Environmental Advisory Commission. This would reduce the environmental impact of plastic bags and would be another signal that we are the “progressive city” that businesses are trying to convince potential employees that we are.

Please don’t take any of this as dismissing the round table and the information discussed there. I just hope these late night thoughts will add some seemingly missing pieces to an important conversation. I think Greenville has a real chance to appeal to the graduates we want to keep, but to do so, our council members are going to have to take stands on issues they’ve so far seemed reluctant to address.

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