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Columbia is working hard to position itself as a journey’s end for the young, gifted and educated.

Business, government and academic leaders have teamed to form EngenuitySC, an organization devoted to establishing the Columbia area as a leader in the so-called “knowledge economy” based on high-tech jobs and a highly skilled workforce.

The group, in collaboration with the Greater Columbia Chamber of Commerce and other business organizations, has launched the Columbia Talent Magnet Project, with a survey aimed at pinpointing what cultural, social and other factors people consider when thinking about whether to live and work in Columbia.

While the effort is aimed at attracting people 35 and younger, it also wants to reach out to older professionals who are well-trained in their fields.

“The goal is a ‘brain gain’ on all fronts and at all levels,” said Greg Hilton, an EngenuitySC project manager. “Companies go where the talent is ... or leave because the talent is not there. That is why this is a critical economic development issue.”

AREA’S TREASURES

Some people outside South Carolina know Columbia as the city on the way from Atlanta to Charlotte.

It also is a place where for decades the State House was topped by the Confederate flag, a source of longstanding conflict over whether it is a symbol of racism or heritage.

But city leaders are trying to introduce people to Columbia’s unheralded treasures, such as:

 A state university dedicated to science and technology research that has a top-ranked International Business program

 Green spaces, including Riverfront Park, and proximity to mountains and beaches

 A relatively low cost of living.

Many of the talented up and comers for which the state is vying are mobile because they do not have life circumstances that anchor them to a particular area.

Still, the state does a good job of retaining those who go to college here. And Richland County keeps the highest percentage of those graduates.

A 2007 study by the South Carolina Commission on Higher Education found that 79 percent of native South Carolinians who graduated from the state’s 33 public colleges in 1997 or 2002 were still in the state five years later.

And about one-fifth of out-of-staters stayed in South Carolina after finishing college here.

“Which means we are an importer of brains,” said Marsha Cole, executive director of My Carolina, University of South Carolina’s alumni association. “It seems to me that people come here and they just love it. It’s a great place to live, and people stay.”

HARD-TO-KEEP PROS

Retention rates are high for those with undergraduate as well as graduate degrees, according to the commission’s study. But the higher their degree, the less likely people were to stay in South Carolina.

For example, 83 percent of the state’s 2002 graduates with associate’s degrees stayed in South Carolina. However, only 75 percent of those with master’s degrees and 64 percent of those with doctoral degrees remained.

People with bachelor’s and advanced degrees in the health professions, education and agriculture were among those most likely to stay. Engineering graduates were consistently less likely to stay here.

The Talent Magnet Project aims to reach out to those harder-to-keep professionals.

AT&T, whose state headquarters for land-line operations is in Columbia, attracts workers by offering competitive salary and benefit packages, said spokeswoman Della Bowling. One of the main incentives is offering computer technology training that allows workers to advance within the company.

HEALTHY CHOICE

With several major hospitals and health centers, Columbia also attracts many health care professionals.

Among South Carolina-trained nurses, 80 percent of those who earned associate’s degrees and 61 percent of those who earned bachelor’s degrees in 2004 were still in the state a year later. Five years later, 10 percent fewer for each category were still here, according to data from the state’s Office of Research and Statistics.

At Palmetto Health Richland, more than half of the 63 doctors who finished residency in 2007 stayed on in the state.

Dr. Brad Lindsey, 31, finished medical school at the University of South Carolina in 2003, did his residency at Palmetto Health and stayed on as a hospitalist.

A West Columbia native, he knew that the Columbia area was where he wanted to be, although he had considered Charlotte, Greenville and Tennessee for residency.

“This is where I grew up, the place that I love being and the people I want to take care of,” said Lindsey,director of Palmetto Health’s hospitalist group.

For this outdoorsman and former chief resident, the hunting and fishing opportunities in the state were a bonus.

Some of his classmates left the state to specialize, but the USC School of Medicine has added new subspecialties over the past few years, keeping some graduates here who might have gone elsewhere.

There clearly is room for jobs that offer advancement opportunities to keep more of the city and state’s most highly educated people here.

But even as South Carolina tries to hold on to its graduates, USC’s Cole points out that a big part of a university’s job is to help its alumni get the best career opportunities they can.

“In some cases, that means they are going to other countries, to other states, or staying here.”

Reach Reid at (803) 771-8378.

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