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Fearing brain drain

Reports say Boston area needs to retain more grads

High housing costs, a tough job market, and a perceived lack of urban vibrancy are discouraging many recent college graduates from staying in the Boston area, according to a joint report released yesterday by the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce and the Boston Foundation.

The report, "Preventing A Brain Drain: Talent Retention in Greater Boston," indicates that 50 percent of graduates in 2003 who received associate, bachelor's, or graduate degrees from 10 institutions in the metropolitan area left the state.

That statistic is of real concern to business officials, who fear Boston, long known for its knowledge workers, could lose its economic edge as other cities vie for bright young talent.

"If this continues, the loss of college graduates will have a serious impact on Boston's economy as it begins to pick up," said Paul Guzzi, the chamber's president. "We want to retain the talent that will create the new software companies and the new high-tech companies."

The report concluded 20 percent of the graduates -- 2,100 were polled -- would have left anyway. But the other 80 percent might have stayed if the Boston area offered more job opportunities, rents and home prices that are more affordable, and a more diverse and vibrant atmosphere, the study said. A separate study released yesterday, from the Boston Redevelopment Authority, also underscored the importance of young people to the area's economy.But it sounded an optimistic note, pointing out that Boston has retained more young people than most other major US cities. The BRA report, "Boston's Dynamic Workforce: Attract, Retain, Absorb," said young adults -- defined as 20- to 34-year-olds -- made up 33 percent of the city's population in 2000, down from 36 percent in 1990. It attributed the decline to demographic shifts that are taking place around the country.

Despite the drop, Boston is second only to Austin, Texas, in terms of the percentage of young adults. Young adults make up 34 percent of Austin's population, the BRA said.

"We are the second in the country in terms of retaining our young adults. That isn't bad right now," said Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino. He viewed the BRA report as a positive sign that Boston remains an attractive place for young professionals.

Massachusetts, like many other states, has been losing younger residents for years. Lower birth rates and the aging of baby boomers -- those born between 1946 and 1964 -- are the reasons, said economist Andrew Sum, director of Northeastern University's Center for Labor Market Studies.

The economic recession of the early 1990s also hurt the state, he said.

Sum, who consulted with the BRA on its report, said a higher number of births in the late 1980s through 1990s will result in more young adults in Boston, "but the challenge will be holding onto them."

"Our state lost more jobs than any other state in the country between 1990 and 2000, five percent of the total job market," Sum said. "So, it will take a turnaround in the economy for people to want to stay.

"Second, rents are horrendous, and the same is true of housing prices. Because of rents, utilities, and taxes, being here is not a good economic bet for young people."

In interviews, some young workers said they were earning competitive salaries, but not enough to support a mortgage, and indicated they were planning to leave for that reason.

"In the past two years, I have worked really hard but I have nothing to show for it," said Devin Billings, a 25-year-old engineer who works at a North Shore electronics company. "My girlfriend and I are ready to get married and start a family. If I stay here, in 10 years I'll be 35 and I'll still be saving for a house."

Billings is moving to Scottsdale, Ariz., in two weeks. "I could take a 40 percent pay cut and still have a higher standard of living there than I do here," he said.

The joint chamber-foundation report points to a 15.8 percent decline in the number of 20- to 34-year-olds in Greater Boston between 1990 and 2000.

Nationally, that demographic group declined just 5.4 percent, the report said.

The decrease is considered troubling because young adults are an integral part of the economy, contributing $4.47 billion, or 33 percent, of Boston's total income of $13.4 billion in 1999, according to census data compiled by the BRA.

Quality of life also played a role in the decisions of college graduates, according to the report form the foundation and the chamber. It said African-Americans were the least satisfied with the city, although they represented just 3 percent of the graduates surveyed.

Minorities, however, were more likely to say the city had become more diverse the longer they stayed.

Twelve percent of those polled went to New York City, 6 percent left the country, 4 percent moved to cities and towns outside Boston, 4 percent went to Washington, D.C., 6 percent went to San Francisco, and 2 percent moved to Los Angeles.

City and business leaders plan to launch separate campaigns to attract and retain young adults. The BRA will begin holding focus groups next month to determine how to better serve their needs.

"We are going to churches, social service programs, day-care centers, and other organizations to find people from modest incomes to higher incomes," said BRA director Mark Maloney. "We are looking for people with educational levels that range from pre-high school to after college."

The chamber and the foundation said they plan to encourage companies to offer internships, and to collaborate with colleges to provide more exposure to the city to college students. The business community is also planning a job fair for upcoming graduates.

Additionally, the organizations said they are working with the Commonwealth Housing Task Force, a project of the Urban Land Institute that is designed to increase housing stock. It is expected to release a study on ways to develop more affordable housing. The chamber and foundation said they will encourage companies to help develop housing.

Diane E. Lewis can be reached at dlewis@globe.com.

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