Duluth’s young professional population dwindles as college students leave after graduation

Out of the roughly 86,000 residents of Duluth, Minn., less than 30 percent of adults have a college degree. There are eight colleges in the Twin Ports area including public, private, community and trade schools. So why are there no college graduates? What happens to all of the young professionals these schools produce? Photo Credit: Ethan Walker

Duluth seems to be living up to its reputation as being a “transition city.” People come here for school or to start work in a smaller market and then move on to bigger things. Students say one of the main problems with staying in Duluth after school is a lack of jobs. Local experts say there are opportunities — if you are willing to look.

Many students, like University of Minnesota Duluth senior Alison Wood, plan on going to the Twin Cities after graduating.

“I guess I really don’t want to go to the Cities, but I think that’s my best bet,” she said.

Wood is going to school to be a high school Spanish teacher, another factor in her decision to leave the city.

“There isn’t really a huge Mexican population here,” she said. “Also, many schools are cutting foreign language programs due to budget cuts, so it’s mostly just lack of opportunities.”

Ryan Mattson, also a UMD senior and studying communications, is unsatisfied with the job market in Duluth as well. Though Mattson will be attending a fifth year at UMD, he plans to move back near Minneapolis when he finishes school.

“I feel like Duluth is more of a college town,” Mattson said. “I feel there are more and better job opportunities in the Cities. I love Duluth but I don’t want to spend my life here.”

While there’s not much Duluth can do to improve the economy to give young college graduates the job opportunities they’re looking for, there are efforts being made to make the city more attractive to young people. In 2000, the Census data showed that the population of 24 to 35-year-olds is smaller than normal for a city of Duluth’s size, only around 12 percent. In 2001, the Duluth Chamber of Commerce revealed a mission to create and promote civic, cultural, and economic opportunities in the area for young people. The Duluth Young Professionals (DYP) group was formed. In 2008, the name of the group was change to Fuse Duluth. The goal of Fuse is simple: “Connecting young people to strengthen our community.”

DYP offers young professionals the chance to mingle with each other at planned social events. Fuse also holds educational events that inform people of areas of community interest or need and teach them how to come together to find solutions. Another feature of Fuse is the College Connection, a program intended to enhance the college students’ relationships with the Duluth business community.

David Ross, president of the Duluth Area Chamber of Commerce, was around when DYP was formed. He said that the goal of the program was to encourage college students to remain in Duluth.

“It was to have more of those students upon graduation at least look to Duluth first before they assume wrongly that there's not an opportunity here, and to connect those soon-to-be graduates with our college connection program,” Ross said. “The idea was that if we can get juniors or seniors connected with mentors, doing internships, that they would find the kind of employment that would be attractive to them.”

Lara Wilkinson, director of Fuse, said that they had 200 people participate in College Connection last year.

“The whole goal is to help bridge that gap between college and the world of work,” Wilkinson said. “A lot of people said, ‘I'd like to stay here but there's no jobs here.’ And that's a tough dynamic to run into because you can't just say ‘Oh yes there are, here's one.’”

Wilkinson said that because Duluth is a close-knit community, jobs are often advertised by word of mouth.

“There are jobs in our area but they’re not necessarily jobs you're going to find in the Duluth News Tribune,” Wilkinson said.

Job opportunity and economics aren’t the only things driving young people out of Duluth. Some, like Minneapolis native Erin Revord, feel that the lack of a social scene or nightlife is a problem. Revord is another senior at UMD. She will be graduating this May with a degree in business.

“Duluth would attract more young people if they tried a little harder at making downtown a fun place to be,” she said. “Maybe... more of an Uptown [Minneapolis] feel with a lot of apartments or living options to choose from, and have a more concentrated area for young people to socialize and hang out.”

Although Revord doesn’t want to stay in Duluth, she was initially attracted to the idea of going to school there.

“When I was choosing a school, the city seemed like the perfect size,” Revord said. “It had the college town feel yet it was bigger than, say, Winona, and definitely more appealing than Mankato. The distance was perfect, too, far enough away from Minneapolis yet close enough that driving home for the weekend isn’t a big deal.”

While leaving the Duluth area upon graduation seems to be the popular trend, there are some young people who decide to stick around. Their successes don’t go unnoticed. Every year, the Duluth News Tribune features its 20 Under 40 Awards, in which it recognizes 20 people under the age of 40 who have made a significant contribution to the betterment of their community. People who fit the bill are nominated by friends, family, or coworkers and ultimately selected by a panel of judges. Past winners have been from all different trades and occupations: CEOs, television producers, and musicians to name a few.

Crystal Pelkey, managing director of Teatro Zuccone

Crystal Pelkey, one of the recipients of the award in September 2010, is the managing director of Teatro Zuccone in Duluth. Pelkey, 32, graduated from UMD in 2002.

“What brought me to school here was I drove around Thompson Hill and I saw a ship in the lake,” Pelkey said. “And I didn't even see the school, I just said ‘I wanna live here.’ It was so beautiful.”

Immediately after graduation, Pelkey went to work for New Moon magazine, then for Renegade Comedy Theater, and finally to her current role at Teatro Zuccone. She said the job at New Moon was what allowed her to stay in town.

“I think that's what a lot of graduates struggle with, just the job factor,” Pelkey said. “Because people would live here, they absolutely love it here, but they just say there's nothing in my field. Which tends to be true.”

Pelkey said the idea that there is not much of a nightlife in Duluth is a misconception.

“We have high class theaters producing high quality shows,” she said. “You pick up a Transistor and there's something going on every night of the week. The homegrown music festival, my God, a one week celebration of all the things we have going on.”

The physical distance between the college campuses and the downtown area might have something to do with the disconnect, Pelkey said.

“There's absolutely a lot to do in this town if you just know where to look for it, or if you care enough to look for it,” she said. “You have to you have to be willing to explore your community and what it has to offer.

While some in the city attempt to retain the younger residents, other people seem to be content with Duluth’s role as a temporary hometown.

“I just don’t think I’d stay here the rest of my life,” Wood said. “Maybe get a job here for, like, 10 years then move to a different location. It’s not that I don’t like Duluth. I’m kind of one of those people that want a different location every 15 years or so.”

Revord agreed.

“Well for me, I guess I just associate everything Duluth with college. When I graduate, I just automatically think Minneapolis because it seems there will be more opportunities and a fun chance to find your own place in a ‘bigger’ city.”

The process of transforming Duluth into a more attractive location for young people is underway.

“Maybe a college student is thinking Grandma's Sports Garden and Dubh Linn is the only nightlife,” Pelkey said. “This side of downtown has changed so much since I have lived here. It's turning into this kind of arts district, and a lot of us are trying to call it the creative quarter of downtown. I think you're just gonna see this side blow up that much more.”

But for now, this city of nearly 86,000 permanent residents might have to stick with being temporary for another 20,000 or so who are “in transition.”

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