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Business leaders eye Fargo-Moorhead’s 30,000 college students to help solve workforce challenges

Christkindlmarkt visitors file into the Drekker Brewing Co. building in Fargo on Nov. 22 to get drinks and keep warm. Business leaders plan to make greater use arts and cultural events to engage Fargo-Moorhead's 30,000 college students as part of a broad workforce enhancement program. Forum file photo

FARGO — The Fargo-Moorhead metro area is a temporary home for 30,000 college students, most of whom head elsewhere to pursue careers after graduating.

Business leaders, struggling with chronic workforce challenges, want to change that.

The Fueling Our Future workforce initiative is backing a new effort called Campus FM with support of up to $250,000.

The aim of Campus FM is to identify what college students need and to remove hurdles in order to capture more graduates for the workforce, said Joe Raso, president of the Greater Fargo Moorhead Economic Development Corp.

The program is modeled after Philadelphia's Campus Philly, which has been operating for 20 years and increased retention of college students, with arts as the primary means of strengthening students’ ties to that city.


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Dayna Del Val, president and CEO of The Arts Partnership, learned about the Philadelphia program in 2017. With assistance from Gate City Bank, she brought the head of Campus Philly to Fargo-Moorhead to meet with local business and higher education leaders.

Although Philadelphia is a much larger city, Del Val was struck by the similarities, including a similar proportion of students living in the two metro areas.

Back in 1999, Philadelphia was retaining about 25% of its college graduates — a situation similar to Fargo-Moorhead today — but kept 57% of its campus graduates in 2018, Del Val said.

Campus Philly made extensive use of arts programming and venues to engage its student population more in the community. For example, it hosted a large career fair in an art museum, she said.

“It’s really this idea of having college students think about where they go to school as a community they’re part of,” Del Val said.

Fargo-Moorhead actually has extensive arts and cultural programs and amenities, she said, but students aren’t always aware of those opportunities and are drawn by the allure of larger cities, to the detriment of employers.

“All the pieces are in place here,” but the community needs to do a better job getting the message out, she said. Two of the three local museums, for instance, have free admission. “But if the students don’t know that, they’re not going to take advantage of that.”



Philadelphia once faced a similar problem, Del Val said. “They were losing out to Chicago, Boston, New York and maybe Atlanta,” she said.
Campus Philly has grown in breadth and sophistication since its inception, now offering internships and networking opportunities. She’d like to see a similar progression in Fargo-Moorhead, where jobs are plentiful and housing is affordable.

Business leaders want to find out how many graduates stay in Fargo-Moorhead to pursue their careers, and then work to increase those rates, Raso said.

“We need to find that out,” he said. “Over time, if this works well in our market, it’s highly likely you’ll see private companies invest.”

From Del Val’s perspective, persuading more college graduates to pursue their careers here is a no-brainer.

“At the end of the day, it’s easier to keep the people you already have,” she said, “than bring in people completely from the outside. We have them from two to four years.”

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