Pittsburgh Passport program uses football, drag queens, and tech to sell the city to college grads

Organizers made diversity a priority and built a schedule of Zoom meetings that college students actually wanted to attend.

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Image: iStockphoto/Joecho-16

How do you make a reinvigorated Rust Belt town look cool to college kids? Apply a business development lens to internship programs and make the process easier for employers and more compelling to students.

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In its second summer session, the Pittsburgh Passport program attracted more than 1,700 participants from 170 universities, 41 countries, and 39 states. The program leaders successfully morphed an in-person program that included networking dinners and kayaking on the Allegheny River to an all-virtual format. The 24 Zoom sessions in June and July included:

  • A drag queen brunch
  • A conversation with Pittsburgh Steelers running back James Conner
  • An open mic night  
  • Cooking classes
  • A tech talk series about fintech, space missions, and startups

In 2019, 1,500 students participated in the program and this year the number was up to 1,700. Alison Treaster of the Allegheny Conference on Community Development, the organization behind the Passport program, said the key to success has been getting employers to collaborate to keep smart people in Pittsburgh.

"On paper, these companies are competing with each other for talent but in this case, they realized that it's better for everyone to keep someone here," she said.

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The Passport program includes high-tech companies focused on robotics and autonomous vehicles as well as more traditional companies doing innovative work in financial services, like EY and PNC.

One of the goals was to keep more college graduates in Pittsburgh. Treaster estimates that about half of the 40,000 people who finish school leave the city each year. Treaster said the goal is to keep between 60% and 70% of new grads. 

"What we found was that students didn't know what opportunities were available in Pittsburgh," she said. "From an employer perspective, students weren't differentiating between companies headquartered here and those just recruiting here."

Treaster said that the 2016 report "Inflection Point: Supply, Demand, and the Future of Work in the Pittsburgh Region" recommended that employers shift from being consumers of talent to investors in the labor marketplace. Treaster and her team used that advice to shape the program and get funding from companies. The Allegheny Conference on Community Development is an umbrella organization for economic development groups including the Pittsburgh Chamber of Commerce and the Pittsburgh Regional Alliance.

Another goal of the program is to make Pittsburgh more diverse. In 2019, 32% of Passport participants were students of color and in 2020 that number went up to 46%. Social justice was one of the topics for the case competition and the Passport program hosted candid conversations about what life in Pittsburgh is like for Black, Latino, other people of color, and LGBTQ+ individuals. People from employee resource groups at Pittsburgh employers participated in these discussions.

"We had breakout rooms so students could talk to professionals like them about the experience of living here," Treaster said. 

Benefits to employers 

Treaster said her team has helped employers start or improve internship programs to make them more valuable for students and employers. There are good examples to follow such as PNC, which has hundreds of interns every summer and uses the program as a hiring pipeline.

"It should be a vetting opportunity for the employer to get better insight into the students and for students to get better indication of what it will be like to join the company," Treaster said.

Employers also can use the Passport program to replace face-to-face opportunities like career fairs. 

The Passport program is free to students and employers can use the organizing team to plan activities and social events.

"For small or medium-sized companies, this allows them to put on a big show and go out to dinner," Treaster said.

PNC, which is based in Pittsburgh, draws interns from across the country. This year the program was condensed to a six-week fully virtually program instead of the 10-week in-person experience. Treaster said the Passport program helped fill that gap.  

Treaster thinks the Passport program will help Pittsburgh compete with traditional tech hubs as COVID-19 changes the landscape of work.

"SF and NYC really have the wow factor but they also come with a significant price tag," she said. "If you can't enjoy the amenities that you're used to, smaller cities that are more affordable and have really beautiful outdoor amenities that are easier to utilize right now have a new appeal."

Benefits to students

In addition to promoting everything Pittsburgh has to offer, the Passport team shared practical advice on how to get an internship from HR professionals. In another session, the Pittsburgh Tech Council interviewed three interns who got full-time job offers who shared job search advice as well as ideas on how to transition from student to employee. Innovation Works explained its work to support startups and build an entrepreneurial ecosystem in southwestern Pennsylvania

Because job candidates now value after hours as much as work hours, the Passport program highlights outdoor activities and cultural institutions, such as the Andy Warhol Museum.

The Case Competition was new this year. Students had a week to build a solution to one of three challenges:

  • Back to school during COVID-19
  • Social justice issues
  • Welcome to Pittsburgh

The winning teams shared a  $30,000 prize and a private networking event with employers. Students had to form teams of three to five from Passport participants and create a presentation to explain their solution.

R&D at Bosch in Pittsburgh

Bosch is based in Germany but has research and development offices in Pittsburgh, Sunnyvale, and Cambridge as well as eight other cities around the world. 

During the summer of 2019, Bosch interns participated in the first Passport program and in 2020 the company sponsored the Tech Talk series included a conversation about their SoundSee project with NASA

Chris Martin, director of research and development for Bosch, worked with the 2019 interns and said the program was a turnkey solution for Bosch, a key to success because the satellite office doesn't have an HR department to manage and plan recruiting events. 

"We got buy-in from our associates as well and it snowballed from there," he said.

Martin said that 20 years ago when he joined the company, Bosch was one of the few Fortune 500 companies with an R&D center in Pittsburgh. The city's story and career opportunities are completely different now, he said.

"Now we have a tech ecosystem here and it's clear that companies in Silicon Valley have a presence here," he said.

Bosch and other companies are building public-private partnerships to support startups and early-stage innovation as well. 

Bosch and Carnegie Mellon are sponsors of the Alphalab Gear Hardware Cup, an international competition for early-stage hardware startups. The competition has events in Pittsburgh, Boston, Washington, D.C., Chicago, Raleigh, and San Jose as well as China, Japan, West Africa, and South Korea. JuneBrain, this year's first place winner, is developing wearable tech for people with multiple sclerosis, and Creation Energy, the second place winner, is building fuel cells that use cassava wastewater.

Also, Bosch recently has been working with Astrobotic, a company that builds lunar landers and rovers to deliver payloads to the moon for companies, governments, universities, nonprofits, and individuals. The company also builds terrain relative navigation, mobile robotics for lunar surface operations, and computing systems for mission-critical applications. 

Bosch and Astrobotic developed a hardware component that uses audio analytics software to record and analyze sounds. Bosch's SoundSee technology uses an algorithm to monitor sounds from machines and look for signs of malfunction. Astrobotic created the hardware payload that delivered SoundSee to the International Space Station in November 2019. SoundSee travels the ISS on NASA's Astrobee Robot to record sounds for analysis. 

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