Stay Work Play effort still taking shape in N.H.

College seniors and recent graduates may have a lot of things on their mind, but for many of them it’s not settling down in the state of New Hampshire.

“I would love to get out of here and move to California,” said Matt Robinson, a computer science graduate student at the University of New Hampshire in Durham. “Not only do they have a better technological presence out there, but the weather is great too.”

Despite its ski resorts, tax-free shopping and convenient coastal location, only half of the state’s college graduates actually stay in New Hampshire after receiving their degree.

“I think that in order to make more money, I need to get out of New Hampshire,” said Katie Lafortune, a senior at the University of New Hampshire and a business management major. “I just think there’s more money to be made elsewhere.”

Perception may not always be reality. New Hampshire has the highest average three-year median household income of all states in the country, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, and the state also ranks very highly in terms of livability, health, safety and low taxes.

But none of these factors resonate among college students who are about to graduate — a cause of concern to both educators and business leaders who are looking to increase the percentage of graduates who do decide to stay.

Matt Cookson, associate vice chancellor for external relations at the University System of New Hampshire, has been one of the key players behind Stay Work Play NH, a program that aims to expose college graduates and young workers to the advantages of remaining in the Granite State, both for their careers and to raise their family.

In order to accomplish the goal, in 2007 the university system spearheaded the 55% Initiative. The first phase of the program was intended to research why 20-to-30-year-olds choose to stay or leave New Hampshire, especially right after graduation.

Megan Hales, coordinator of employer relations and recruiting at the University of New Hampshire, has found over the past three years that most students’ decisions to stay or leave the state have been split.

“Students are just looking to get a job wherever they can,” said Hales, adding that their decisions weigh heavily on what their needs are and what field they’re looking to get in to. “For instance, students in the biotechnology industry will find that most of the available jobs are in the Cambridge, Mass., area.”

Stay Work Play NH is aiming for a soft launch sometime after New Year’s and is expected to be up and running in the spring. It will be marketed through career services offices at colleges around the state, but primarily through social media.

“We came up with this program after receiving interest from younger people in having a Web site to go to look for job opportunities,” said Cookson.

The Web site will be a resource to find jobs, but it will also take things a step further, highlighting all the entertainment and other activities that are available in New Hampshire — as told by young adults themselves.

While the Web site is being built, a Facebook group is soliciting ideas to be used on the Web site. It asks for posts of pictures, videos or ideas of things that young adults like to do in New Hampshire.

“We want this program to focus on real kids and not have it be just another Web site with standard pictures of New Hampshire,” said Cookson. “The content can be edgy because it is an independently run Web site.”

So far, posts on the Facebook group have commented on the great location of New Hampshire. One blogger writes, “One of the best things about NH is the ease of getting to the lakes, mountains, ocean and Boston. Add the ease of traveling from the Manchester/Boston Airport and you can go anywhere!”

Another blogger posted a link to the NH Sports and Social Club, which he says “supports the ‘play’ part of this initiative.”

What will likely be the hidden gem of this whole program, however, is the debt incentive program, through which the Web site will promote companies throughout the state that are willing to pay off up to $8,000 of student debt for new or recent college grads taking jobs at entry-level positions.

“We came up with this idea right when the economy turned, so we’re keeping it in our back pocket for now,” said Cookson. “It will be a great resource for students and businesses alike because it could be cheaper than listing jobs on any other Web site. This is the incentive that will blow up once we start driving a lot of traffic to the Web site.”

For now, however, with Stay Work Play NH still incubating, the effort is not on students’ radar.

“I’ve never heard of it,” said Lafortune. “And if there is any factor that’s going to make me stay in New Hampshire, it’s going to be my family and close friends, not a Web site.”

The five prominent statewide organizations behind Stay Work Play NH hope to get it in front of the eyes of a lot of college-aged students sooner rather than later.

“There are a lot of ways it can be helpful,” said Cookson, and the proof will be seen as soon as it is truly launched and effectively marketed.

For now, ideas, pictures, or videos of fun things to do in New Hampshire can be submitted to or through the Facebook group, “Stay Work Play NH.”

Laura Chamberlain can be reached at