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Baton Rouge Has STEM Jobs. Why Are College Grads Leaving?

About 60 percent of STEM graduates from the city's two major universities stay in Louisiana five years after earning their degrees, but experts say digital equity and reaching kids at a young age could improve retention.

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(TNS) — When Rural Sourcing goes hunting for a new office location, one of its top priorities is finding a city with a university talent pipeline nearby.

So it makes sense why the Atlanta-based information technology firm in November chose to open a 150-person branch in Baton Rouge: LSU and Southern University both have computer science programs.

"For us, our mission is to create tech jobs where they maybe didn't exist before," said Robin Stenzel, Rural Sourcing's chief people officer. "We certainly saw Louisiana as an opportunity to be able to really help us through our mission."

Rural Sourcing's move reflects a push by Baton Rouge officials to pursue more in-demand jobs in STEM — science, technology, engineering and math — to keep college graduates.

Amid the national war to produce and retain STEM talent, Baton Rouge's two major universities seemingly are holding their ground. Of LSU's STEM graduates since 2001, 60 percent have kept their roots in Louisiana five years after earning their degrees, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau. Southern has a similar figure at 58 percent. For comparison, the University of Louisiana at Lafayette has an impressive 71 percent retention rate.

But those figures lag behind competitors in states like Texas, where STEM retention rates reach beyond 80 percent.

Plenty of STEM jobs are available here, Baton Rouge Area Chamber officials say. The challenge is convincing college grads to stay here in the long term.

Addressing the issue, Baton Rouge officials say, is easy in theory but complex in practice: Expose students to STEM education early and connect them with opportunities before their eyes wander elsewhere.

"We have 55,000 kids in higher ed in the capital region right now," said Andrew Fitzgerald, BRAC's senior vice president of business intelligence. "We have enough people there to fill these jobs. We're just not retaining enough."


To be clear, the definition of a STEM concentration can vary from university to university. For example, computer science can fall under an engineering college at one university or might be its own department at another, Fitzgerald said.

The Advocate used the following concentrations to define STEM graduates: engineering and engineering-related technologies; biological and biomedical sciences; agricultural, animal, plant and veterinary sciences; architecture and related services; health professions and related programs; computer and information sciences and support services; natural resources and conservation; physical sciences; and mathematics and statistics.

The Advocate examined data in the above concentrations where applicable. For example, the University of Alabama doesn't have agriculture or veterinary programs, while LSU does.

The retention picture is also incomplete. Seventeen states provide post-secondary retention data to the U.S. Census Bureau. But it does provide a window into how Louisiana's competition is faring.

The University of Alabama and the University of Missouri, two Southeastern Conference schools with enrollments similar to LSU's, have retention rates of 62 percent and 61 percent, respectively. The University of Michigan and the University of Virginia, considered "public Ivy" schools, keep 39 percent and 45 percent of STEM grads in their respective states.

But those figures pale in comparison to the behemoth to the west: Texas. About 74 percent of graduates from the University of Texas at Austin stay in the Lone Star State five years after graduation. Texas A&M University, another SEC rival, boasts a whopping 85 percent in-state retention clip.

A notable portion of LSU's STEM grads are heading west. About 19 percent of them end up in either Texas, Oklahoma or Arkansas, according to census data. Fitzgerald said it's a "safe inference" the bulk of them are Texas-bound.

STEM jobs are here, according to BRAC. Capital region employers posted about 2,800 job openings in STEM occupations in December, the latest available data. That accounted for 9.7 percent of all the region's postings.

Fitzgerald noted every state is competing with Texas for talent, in part because of lower tax burdens and even more job opportunities there, particularly in tech and digital media in Austin.

And while cost of living is higher in the major Texas metros than in Baton Rouge, it's still lower than the nation's largest metro areas, which still makes Texas an attractive destination overall.

"It's tough, and it's not a Louisiana thing. It's a national thing," Fitzgerald said. "California, Illinois and New York are losing people both to Florida and Texas at an incredible rate."


The way to drive retention up is to develop and maintain relationships with students as early as elementary school, said Frank Neubrander, executive director of LSU's Gordon A. Cain Center for STEM Literacy and a member of the Louisiana Board of Regents' LaSTEM Advisory Council.

"The biggest problem now is that we have to increase access to these types of opportunities to far more students in Louisiana than we do right now," Neubrander said. "It should be that almost every high school student in Louisiana should have a chance to experience computing, computer science, robotics, digital media, you name it."

For its part, LSU has established programs like STEM Pathways, which provides introductory courses for K-12 students and teacher training sessions.

Enrollment in STEM Pathways has grown from 200 students in 2017 to 7,000 this year, and it should hit the 10,000 threshold soon, Neubrander said.

"We are doing things to increase exposure of Louisiana students to STEM," he said. "Now, that's the easy part."

The challenge for educators, Neubrander said, is balancing student opportunities with local needs. Should schools push students toward in-state jobs, or should they provide a strong enough education to maximize students' opportunities after graduation?

"The only way to balance is you have to look at the workforce needs in Louisiana, and that's what we try to do," Neubrander said.

LSU and Southern also use Handshake, a national platform that connects college students to local internship and entry-level positions. The point of Handshake is to draw students away from their campus bubble, Fitzgerald said.

"Campus life is so strong that kids don't tend to get off campus as much," Fitzgerald said. "What we've heard anecdotally from some of the intern programs they've had before is college students didn't realize the amenities that were necessarily available, and there's just a perception that there's not a lot to do in Baton Rouge."

For its part, Rural Sourcing said it has met with students at LSU and Southern to build its local pipeline. The company hired nine local graduates for its junior associate developer program and has six more waiting in the wings for next year's program, said Stenzel, the Rural Sourcing executive.

"Our hope is that there's a fit for both them and us and we're able to retain them to go on and to work on client projects," she said.

©2022 The Advocate, Baton Rouge, La. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.