Young workers love cities. So what’s a suburban company to do?
Haley Alexson loves her job in Framingham, where she works in fashion merchandising for a local company. The corporate culture is great, she said, and she’s learning a lot from her more experienced colleagues.
But life as a 22-year-old professional in the suburbs has its disadvantages. She has a half-hour commute to her Brighton apartment, and she attends night classes twice a week at Boston University, where she’s working toward a master’s degree in business administration.
There’s also less of a chance in the suburbs to network with workers from other companies and industries, she said.
“It was something that I struggled with” before taking the job, said Alexson, who graduated from Framingham State University in May. “A lot of my friends who live in Boston [and] work in Boston full time have a little bit more excitement and more going on around them.”
As young adults like Alexson launch their careers, many find themselves weighing whether to choose an urban vibe over the quieter atmosphere of the suburbs. And for some companies, the future lies in enticing this new generation.
In November, Virgin Pulse, a maker of health software, took advantage of about $6 million in tax credits to move from a Framingham office park to Providence, a switch the company hopes will help it recruit younger workers.
“You can hire a younger workforce that can be the future of the company,” chief executive officer David Osborne said in an interview.
For other companies west of Boston, a suburban location hasn’t been an obstacle to recruiting young talent.
Officials at MathWorks, based in Natick, and Boston Scientific, headquartered in Marlborough, said young applicants are familiar with their companies and are drawn by the work they do.
“It’s immediately visible to students who have used our tools in college where our tools are impactful in the marketplace,” said Tim Evans, senior recruiting manager at MathWorks. “They know who we are already.”
Emily Cournoyer, director of talent acquisition at Boston Scientific, said the company “really understands that employees spend a lot of time working, and we want to create an infrastructure and programs that support them.”
In 2015, millennials surpassed Generation X to become the largest share of the nation’s workforce, according to the Pew Research Center. More than 1 in 3 workers were ages 18 to 34, totaling 53.5 million people.
Metrowest — an economic powerhouse spanning as many as 35 cities and towns around Route 9 and Interstate 495 — is home to major employers like MathWorks, Boston Scientific, and Bose.
The region offers a “very vital” commercial real estate market and other attractive features, said Michael Goodman, leader of a research team that released a report this month identifying infrastructure challenges facing Metrowest.
But many young workers are looking to start their careers at companies in urban settings, he said.
“A generation or two ago, the suburbs were the more desirable destination, and the style at the time was, ‘Let’s have a big, suburban campus,’” said Goodman, executive director of UMass Dartmouth’s Public Policy Center. “For a variety of different reasons, including the preferences of the workers that are in high demand, that’s changed a bit. And now urban areas are more prosperous.”
Metrowest’s population skews older than the state capital: The median age of the region’s residents is 42, compared with 31 for Boston’s residents, according to the US Census’s 2012-2016 American Community Survey.
The demand for young workers is especially tight in fields like engineering and life sciences, where firms seek out recent graduates who have trained in the latest technologies, said Joseph B. Fuller, a professor of management practice at Harvard Business School.
Younger workers generally want to be around other people their age, and cluster in cities for the lifestyle and professional opportunities. This can give companies with urban offices an advantage, he said, and creates a “very real dilemma” for employers in the suburbs.
“There are demographic windows where it’s very hard for those employers to put forward a package of benefits that offsets both the real and — to a certain degree — the perceived benefits of working in an urban area,” Fuller said.
It’s not clear whether young workers will remain downtown as their lives progress, said John D. Macomber, a senior lecturer of business administration at Harvard Business School.
There is an advantage for companies to cluster together in cities — think Cambridge’s Kendall Square, where biotech firms are close by — and there is a demographic of young people ready to pay expensive rents to live in a city like Boston, he said.
But as young workers start families of their own, they may look to suburbs for a lower cost of living and extra space.
“Employers looking beyond a 100 percent gee whiz info tech recent grad workforce will still find suburban locations to be attractive,” said Macomber.
Metrowest offers companies access to lower-cost real estate compared with Boston, plus access to a highly educated workforce and the venture capital community, said Paul Matthews, executive director of the 495/MetroWest Partnership, a regional economic development group.
“The idea that... the millennial issue will force new companies to locate only in some of the cutting-edge areas of Boston is flawed, because a lot of those companies are dealing with a multitude of factors to consider, including operating cost,” Matthews said. “That’s why we’re seeing strong economic activity out here.”
And for companies just starting out, there is a trade-off to consider between the lower costs of renting space in the suburbs and being close to a city and droves of young workers.
That’s a frequent conversation at Framingham State University’s Entrepreneur Innovation Center, a partnership between the school and Boston-based Workbar to provide space for local startups, said the center’s director, Mark Hardie.
After more than a year, he said the program has grown from about four to 40 members, and includes companies in tech, human resources, tourism, and other fields.
The program also includes an entrepreneurship course, so students have an opportunity to learn from internships with local startups, and those companies can draw upon young talent.
“All of our members across the board say that having an internship program is the reason they’re there,” said Hardie. “They need to get to the young professionals, the students coming out of school as early as possible.”
Still, the suburbs aren’t always an easy sell.
Jeneba Mansaray has dreams of someday breaking out on her own and building a business in fashion design.
The 22-year-old student wants to draw from her family’s heritage — her mother is from Guinea and her father is from Sierra Leone — while using the textile and merchandising skills she has learned at Framingham State.
“That’s my purpose here, to show that we can do it, that black people can do it, that African-Americans can start businesses and they do deserve more of a platform,” she said. “The only way I can do that is by using my talent.”
This semester, she’s enrolled in the entrepreneurship course so she can learn how to get a business off the ground. But she said that business will grow in bustling New York, not suburban Framingham.
“I do like Framingham, because it gives me space to think,” Mansaray said. “But I do like the energy of the city.”