Higher Education

Higher Education

Building youth for the future

This article was originally published in the Worcester Telegram.

Some of the most innovative businesses in modern times were born on college campuses, including Google, Yahoo, FedEx and Dell. The best-known is probably Facebook, founded in Mark Zuckerberg's dorm room at Harvard and now boasting one billion users. But the story of the first giant social network is also a cautionary tale for those who would cultivate young talent in Massachusetts, because Facebook is famously the one that got away.

Why did Zuckerberg drop out of Harvard and take his rapidly growing company to California's Silicon Valley? Clearly, he felt Massachusetts didn't offer enough of the supportive environment he needed, one that helps talent both to bloom and to take root in its local community.

The technology sector in Cambridge is still smarting from the emigration of Facebook. Call it a lesson learned. Today, that city is freckled with incubators and other resources designed to help local talent start and grow companies. A budding entrepreneur can barely walk down a Kendall Square street without bumping into a potential mentor or investor.

Massachusetts is still the foundry of innovation, an engine that is powering new industries: cloud computing, software app development, video gaming. These are the growth industries of the future. Apps makers alone now account for 500,000 jobs nationwide, of which 20,000 are in our state. The Massachusetts Digital Games Institute, Mass DiGI, an advocacy group based at Becker College, found that the video game industry is one of the fastest-growing sectors in the state, with employment rising 78 percent since 2009. Almost 40 percent of the state's video game companies say they plan to hire more workers in the next twelve months, and those are the well-paying jobs for which Massachusetts is best known.

Yet Cambridge is certainly not the only corner of Massachusetts with untapped talent eager for those jobs. The Worcester area has a higher education student body that is 30,000 strong, and 12 colleges that serve as the guardians of that brain trust. But we need to do more, on and off campus, to develop talented individuals and encourage them to build lives and businesses in our community.

When Central Massachusetts was a thriving industrial center, supplying the world with steel and shoes, it took monumental resources to found a new company. With today's technology, though, an individual can start the next Facebook, Apple or Microsoft with nothing more than a laptop and an innovative idea. That makes the Worcester area uniquely positioned to command its own substantial piece of the world's soon-to-be-$15 trillion digital economy.

This may be the only area in New England that can claim so many world-class educational institutions, a strong infrastructure, and unlike Boston and Cambridge, a cost of living that is still reasonable.

What we don't have are sufficient mechanisms to retain the talent in that brain trust.

Make no mistake: Central Massachusetts is in heated competition against communities like Cambridge, Boston and even Holyoke, home to a new, $165 million, high-speed computing center, to attract and retain intellectual capital. To hold our own, we need a mechanism to help talented people find careers and build rewarding lives, preferably in our community. As the guardians of the local student brain trust, the area's educational institutions have a special responsibility to help create that mechanism.

To take advantage of our on-campus innovation and cultivate entrepreneurship, the time has come to create a local, shared-space facility designed to incubate and accelerate start-up businesses. Our college campuses are the perfect sources of talent for such an enterprise. The New York Times recently reported that about one-third of the nation's incubators are at universities, up from one-fifth just six years ago. Why? Because that's where a new generation, fluent in the digital idiom, is already creating the ideas that will build new industries.

Becker College hopes to join the city, the state, private industry, and our fellow educational institutions to help develop such a facility. Together, we can incubate the next big thing, and better yet, help to keep it local.

As Franklin D. Roosevelt once told a college audience, "We cannot always build the future for our youth, but we can build our youth for the future."

Colleges must become entrepreneurial boot camps, helping to create a workforce with the skills and attitudes that allow each individual to compete in an increasingly global economy.

And they should take an active hand in helping graduates to find their futures here in Worcester.

Robert Johnson