It feels like there’s no surer sign of the decline of a region than when young college educated people all migrate away, seeking jobs and a better life somewhere else. That, according to a new report out from the Hartford Foundation for Public Giving, is where the capital region stands today.
Why do young educated workers leave? Some 60 percent cited a lack of good jobs as the major reason to go. Others cited the lack of walkable neighborhoods and decent public transportation options. Connecticut has very few of any of those.
This is nothing new. When my generation graduated from college, many of us went on to big cities like Boston or New York or San Francisco; very few stayed. I meet these people all over the country now; they often miss Connecticut, but there’s no opportunity for them here.
These days, though, it’s gotten much, much worse. Jobs are scarcer, tastes among college-educated millennials have shifted toward urban living, and student debt makes the high cost of living here much more difficult to stomach. Metro Hartford, according to this report, is dead last in the entire country for retaining four-year college graduates.
This could quickly turn into a death spiral. When high wage earners leave, our income tax-reliant system can’t bring in enough revenue to fund the kinds of programs and investments that would lure young people back. And if skilled workers are simply not present, major employers will locate those good jobs we need somewhere else. Our system is set up to make it very hard to claw our way out of this kind of hole.
We’re not alone in this. Regions that lack a major urban center are finding it harder and harder to attract and retain young professionals, and it’s these young professionals who often become the cornerstone of the economy. Back in the 1970s and 80s our sprawling, quiet, and conservative suburbs drew companies like GE to Connecticut, because that’s what people who worked for those companies wanted. Now those suburbs, homogenous, older, unwalkable, expensive, and connected to the hub of the region only by creaking, traffic-choked highways, are seen by young professionals as remnants of a past they’d rather leave behind.
And unlike other parts of the northeast, Connecticut has no major cities to help retain companies and workers. The kind of dynamic urban energy that young professionals are looking for, formed by vibrant neighborhoods, compact and walkable districts, and downtowns that people can live, work, and play in, is a lot harder to generate with smaller post-industrial cities. New Haven, which has the benefit of a world-class university in its downtown, comes the closest to being the kind of place upwardly mobile young people would move to of any city in Connecticut.
There is some progress being made. CTFastrak is an important transit link connecting New Britain, Hartford, and two of the inner suburbs, and it is unsurprisingly popular. Downtown Hartford has far more housing now than it’s had for decades; developments like 777 Main — the former Bank of America building — are having little trouble attracting tenants. New Haven recently received a grant to implement the next phase of its ambitious plan to remove the Oak Street Connector highway that plowed through its downtown and replace it with a reconnected street grid, housing, offices, and shops.
A few improvements slated for the near future will help, as well. In 2017 the Hartford Line will open, establishing commuter rail service between New Haven, Hartford, and Springfield. The UConn Hartford campus will open in 2017 as well, drawing students and more economic activity downtown. Theoretically the Yard Goats’ stadium will open in 2017, too, but whether that actually happens is anyone’s guess. CTFastrak should expand east of the river, and perhaps north of the city as well.
But all of this isn’t enough.
Public transit needs to be improved, but not just because white urban professionals like and use it. All of our towns and cities need to be more livable, better connected, more walkable, and more diverse. We need more housing, and it needs to actually be something young college graduates can afford.
Most of all, if we can’t retain or attract a skilled workforce, we need to work to build one with the people who actually do live here and want to stay. We need inexpensive ways for everyone to access education and training, and we need more business-friendly policies to encourage entrepreneurs.
If we can work toward that, Connecticut won’t be good just for young professionals, but for everyone.
Susan Bigelow is an award-winning columnist and the founder of CTLocalPolitics. She lives in Enfield with her wife and their cats.
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