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Slowing Boston’s ‘brain drain’

Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff

Brenda Lemos is a research associate at Avaxia in Lexington, where she was an intern last summer.

Sydney Arbelbide graduated from Northeastern University last year with a degree in systems engineering and a job offer in Silicon Valley from Google Inc. But she turned down the Internet search giant for a small tech firm in Boston.

A major reason was her six-month co-op job, similar to an internship, with the Boston company, Eze Castle Integration, which provides information technology services to the financial industry. As she set up IT systems downtown, she found she liked working at a smaller company - and liked being in Boston.

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“Not many people turn down Google: Hey, we’re Google. We have free food, you get to live in sunny California,’’ said Arbelbide, who is from Denver. “As sexy as Google is, I knew I’d be a lot happier here.’’

Arbelbide, 23, represents the kind of young, skilled, and educated workers who often leave the Boston area after finishing college; her experience is an example of the strategy business and government leaders are pursuing to keep these workers here. Over the past few years, both public agencies and business groups have launched initiatives to connect students to internships and similar job programs in the hopes they will make the same decision as Arbelbide.

The Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce, for instance, last year started a website for members to list internships.

“There’s a certain glue that having an internship provides between students and the community,’’ said Chamber president Paul Guzzi. “With all the world-class colleges and universities that produce all the world-class talent, we’ve got an incredible opportunity.’’

Attracting and retaining young talent is considered crucial for the Boston area’s economic future. The region’s innovation economy runs primarily on brain power, and the state’s workforce is aging, creating a risk of labor shortages as baby boomers retire.

‘Students are one of the best resources that the Boston region has.’

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In recent years, business leaders and policy makers have raised concerns about a “brain drain’’ as older workers retire and college graduates head for Silicon Valley, New York City, and other places. Nearly half of college students leave the Boston area after graduation, and a 2008 study by the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston found that New England had the greatest rate of outflow of recent college graduates of any US region.

Internships can slow that trend by offering students stronger ties to the local job market, and in turn, to a region where they may settle down, according to the study.

Internships are a way for students to get experience in their fields, and companies to train and recruit employees. Some internships are paid, some are unpaid, and students sometimes receive academic credit.

“Retaining talent is our single biggest inhibitor to growth here,’’ said Tom Hopcroft, president of the industry group Mass Technology Leadership Council. “Massachusetts educates the world, and so if we could just retain 5 percent more of the students that come through here, that would be transformative for the industry.’’

The council last summer launched a website listing internships from its 450 members, as well as other technology firms, and plans social events for interns this summer to further build connections to Boston.

Heather Johnson, executive director of the industry group’s education foundation, even jokes about starting “meetageek.com’’ dating site to introduce interns to local singles - ideally locals who will persuade their new partners to settle down here.

“Is there a way to excite them about Boston?’’ Johnson said.

An internship at the start-up promoter MassChallenge did the trick for Emma Bisogno, 22, a senior communications major at Simmons College. She had expected to move to New York after she graduated this month, but instead will soon start a marketing job at Promoboxx, a South End tech start-up that connects major brands with local retailers.

Interning at MassChallenge, said Bisogno, “definitely opened my eyes to the entrepreneurial spirit in Boston.’’

Big companies are also trying to increase awareness of internships. EMC Corp., the Hopkinton data storage giant, is working with the state to spread the word about openings and increasing its recruiting on campuses.

Hiring workers familiar with Boston is beneficial because they know about cold winters and aggressive drivers and won’t want to leave after two years, said Cindy Gallerani, director of university relations at EMC.

The Massachusetts Life Sciences Center, a quasi-public state agency, pays interns a $7,200 stipend and places them at small companies that might not otherwise be able to afford to recruit or hire them. The center has placed 747 interns at 239 companies since 2009to help maintain a skilled labor force that attracts firms to the state, said chief executive Susan Windham-Bannister.

Avaxia Biologix, an 11-person Lexington firm that develops oral antibodies, has hired several interns through the Life Sciences Center program.

If Avaxia had not taken on Brenda Lemos as an intern last summer, she might have left the state after graduating from the University of Massachusetts Boston last year with a degree in biochemistry.

Lemos said she didn’t realize how many different drug therapies are developed locally until she started at Avaxia, where she is now employed as a research associate. “They don’t market [internships] the way they should to students,’’ she said.

The Venture Development Center at UMass Boston works with high-tech firms to identify the skills they need, then trains students who can fill that need.

“Students are one of the best resources that the Boston region has. But we kind of take them for granted,’’ said center founder William Brah. “It’s an economic issue. The best students need to be here, otherwise we lose jobs.’’

Katie Johnston can be reached at kjohnston@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @ktkjohnston.
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