Duluth not welcoming, young transplants looking for work say

Working on LinkedIn profile
University of Minnesota-Duluth junior Abby Mlinar works with sophomore Tyler Winters-Legg on his LinkedIn profile at a drop-in help session at the school's Career Services Center on Thursday, April 5, 2012. Duluth officials are trying to keep young college students in the area after they graduate to boost the city's population to 90,000 by 2020.
MPR Photo/Dan Kraker

In the Career Services office at the University of Minnesota Duluth, senior Brian Spiese recently fine-tuned his LinkedIn profile.

Spiese, of Forest Lake, Minn., is graduating this fall with a degree in Organizational Management. He hopes to find a job at a technology company in Duluth.

"I like the community," Spiese said. "I actually go up north a lot, got family up there too, so yeah, I'm definitely looking to stay here."

But so far, his network of friends and family in the Twin Cities is producing more leads. "Up here? I guess I'm kinda in the dark a little bit," he said.

Duluth, a city of about 85,000 that has seen its population remain stagnant for the past 25 years, needs to hang on to people like Spiese to spur economic growth. But historically it has had trouble doing so, in part because of local attitudes. Last year, the Miami-based Knight Foundation released a major study of the city with a troubling conclusion: it doesn't embrace the young people it needs to attract.

Duluth will need to change that perception to fulfill an ambitious goal Mayor Don Ness has set for the city: boosting the population to 90,000 people by 2020. The city only needs to add 5,000 residents to reach that goal, but that would be Duluth's biggest growth spurt since the 1940s.

City officials are trying hard to attract and retain young professionals and college graduates. But that's a challenge, given that the most mobile person in America is a 24-year-old with a bachelor's degree or more education.

Photograph for annual report
Duluth photographer Jack Rendulich (left) photographs Corine Erickson (second from left) and Kyle Akervik (second from right) and Erin Olejnicak (right) for the cover of the Duluth Superior Community Foundation's annual report Tuesday, April 10, 2012 at the College of St. Scholastica in Duluth, Minn. Duluth officials are trying to keep young college students in the area after they graduate to boost the city's population to 90,000 by 2020.
Derek Montgomery for MPR

Attracting that demographic is a coup for any community, said Drew Digby, a labor analyst for the state Department of Employment and Economic Development.

"When you can keep them and bring that energy into a community, and bring their sense of investment into a community that really helps the overall economy," Digby said.

Spiese is a perfect example of someone Duluth's community leaders desperately want to hang on to. He's educated, motivated, and he wants to stay.

Duluth has struggled to retain young adults. The 2000 census, for example, showed a rapidly aging city unable to hang on to graduates of the region's five post-secondary schools. Ness said that after the 2000 Census, the city was in danger of decline.

"The group that feels least welcomed in the Twin Ports is young professionals and college students," said Rob Karwath, former executive editor of the Duluth News Tribune. "And that has economic implications for our community."

Karwarth is president and CEO of North Coast Communications and managing director of Twin Ports Connex, a new effort funded by the Duluth Superior Area Community and Knight Foundations. It is designed to link young talent with area employers.

At a recent meeting with UMD students, a senior from the Twin Cities told Kawarth that he felt excluded from the local job market.

Scanning documents
Austin White scans documents during his internship at Patrick Francisco and Associates Tuesday, April 10, 2012 in Duluth, Minn. Duluth officials are trying to keep young college students in the area after they graduate to boost the city's population to 90,000 by 2020.
Derek Montgomery for MPR

"[He] said, 'It's kind of well known in my peer group that Duluth employers only want to hire Duluth people,' "Karwarth recalled. "And I thought, 'oh, no, no, no.' "

Karwath said employers tell him they're not biased against non-Duluthians, but don't have time to conduct an extensive hiring process. Instead, he said, they ask people they know to refer someone.

"That tends to be local people," he said. "So you can see how that perception gets created."

Duluth's community leaders are trying to change that perception with programs like Twin Ports Connex and a Chamber of Commerce internship program.

The city also has invested in improving the quality of life for young professionals after hours. It has backed local arts groups and helped acquire funding for new hiking and mountain-bike trails.

Duluth Mayor Don Ness
Duluth Mayor Don Ness has set an ambitious goal to boost the city's population to 90,000 people by 2020. In this photo, Ness delivers the State of the City address April 2, 2012.
MPR photo/Dan Kraker

The 2010 census suggests that investment is starting to pay off. Duluth gained about 4,000 people between the ages of 20 and 34 over the decade.

Building the city's young talent base is key to helping the economy grow by attracting new companies and helping local ones expand, said Joe Cortright, a Brookings Institution economist.

"The absolute critical ingredient is, 'how can we get the people that we need?' " said Cortright, also president of Impresa, a Portland, Ore., consulting firm. "It turns out that this issue of talent is central to economic development."

To help build Duluth's talent base, the city needs nothing less than a fundamental change in its culture, Mayor Don Ness said.

"I think there has been, at least traditionally, a sense in Duluth that we're not a community that wants to grow, or we're a community that doesn't believe that we can grow,' said Ness, 38. "That's what we're trying to change in Duluth."

The payoff could be significant.

The Knight Foundation study that found that many young people do not feel welcome in Duluth also noted that that economic growth is strongest where residents feel good about their community.

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