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Cleveland struggles to attract talent. This program wants to help fix that.

Students from Summer on the Cuyahoga’s nine participating colleges get to know each other at a student mixer from first week of program. Photo: Joseph O’Donnell/Summer on the Cuyahoga

Cleveland’s talent problems are well-documented. A recent report dialed into the TL;DR of it all: the city does well with retaining talent, but struggles to bring in those who aren’t from here.

What seems to be less talked about, though, are solutions that could help.

Summer on the Cuyahoga is one. The program brings college students to Cleveland for paid internships as well as a summer full of activities to get to know the city and those who live here. The hope is they’ll eventually come back for a job, or at a minimum, share positive thoughts about the city to their peers.

“We’re introducing talent from all over the country, and really the world, to this Cleveland region that might not have otherwise given us a second thought,” said Eric McGarvey, the nonprofit’s executive director.

The organization reports it’s had more than 12,500 applicants over the past decade. The application explicitly states it’s a competitive process to be selected. Approximately 70 people make up this summer’s cohort.

SOTC partners with nine higher education institutions from across the country: Allegheny College, Case Western Reserve University, Colgate University, Cornell University, Denison University, Oberlin College, Ohio Wesleyan University, Smith College and the University of Chicago.

Participating schools are chosen, according to officials, due in part to the strength of their alumni bases in Northeast Ohio. Accepted interns are matched up with an alum from their college and are also connected to the institution’s alumni network here in the region. The hope is the connection extends past the summer and provides another tie for a student’s potential future in the region.

“It’s fun to meet young people who are in the college and connecting us to it again,” said Joan Spoerl, a University of Chicago alumna and former SOTC board member.

Those connections help the organization, too, as these alumni networks help open the door to potential employers to employ the interns. The 2022 crop includes more than 30 organizations, including the Cleveland Clinic, Slavic Village Development, Brookdale Orchard, Hana Technologies and Karamu House.

In addition to the interns’ salaries, employers pay $1,100 to the program. That money goes toward housing costs for the students. Sponsor and donor funds cover the gap in housing fees.

Case Western Reserve University charges a slightly adjusted rate to the organization in exchange for hosting the interns at a dorm on the University Circle campus. Lodging is free for interns. Having that free place to stay, according to SOTC board president Heidi Milosovic, can help to level the playing field.

“It does offer students maybe without the economic means to participate at a high level in an internship,” said Milosovic, an Oberlin grad who is the managing director and principal at Waverly Partners.

For MetroHealth, the health system considers paying that fee as an investment in its commitment to finding diverse talent, according to its director of culture and organizational effectiveness, Tiffany Short.

Nine students are interning across various departments via the program this summer. Metro recruits heavily from its own backyard institutions, Short said, but there are opportunities to go beyond that.

“It’s important for companies like Metro to expand their brand footprint, to make sure that students at these other colleges know that Metro is a viable option,” she said. “You can come and work and play and build a great life in the city of Cleveland.”

The activities SOTC offers students can help with that. It’s not just a summer of clocking in and clocking out. Interns must commit to going to a minimum of 15 activities and events, though most end up going to 20 to 25.

The calendar is stacked. There are tours of the city’s neighborhoods, visits to the area’s cultural institutions, resume workshops, a Junteenth celebration at Karamu House.

For recent Smith College graduate Rachel Tramposch, who’s interning at the Cleveland Museum of Art this summer, she always surmised that her post-grad life would begin in New York City. It’s near where she grew up.

“That’s where the adults live,” she said. “That’s where they go when they want a job.”

That line of thinking is evolving, though. She’s identified what’s needed to turn a city into her city: cultural offerings, good public transit, nightlife.

That aligns with what other interns have told SOTC officials over the years, too. The group has exactly 1.5 full-time staff members. They rely heavily on volunteers and board members and donors. Executive director McGarvey writes many grants, he said, to get more money.

The group’s in a strategic planning period now, including thinking about how to expand or boost revenue streams. Officials said they want to be in a place with a “better, more sustainable financial model.”

There’s a lot of interest from other cities — Milwaukee just called, for example — that want to learn how to do something similar in their region. There’s talk of figuring out a way to package and charge for that advice.

In the meantime, though, another summer is here, another chance to change a perception or make an impression.

About 1,300 interns have taken part in the program since 2003. Officials know of about 200 interns who’ve definitely returned to the region, though there could be more. Some return for multiple summers.

That’s just one way the group measures success. Surveys are administered at the end of every summer, asking students if they enjoyed their time in Cleveland, what they think of the city, if they’d move here, if they would recommend the region to others.

The overwhelming majority of those responses are positive, according to McGarvey. They think highly of the city and their time here. And that can help turn former interns into forever Cleveland ambassadors, he said, no matter where they may land.

Amy Morona covers higher education for Crain’s Cleveland Business, in partnership with Open Campus.

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