A Student Perspective: Talent Retention in Leeds

Leeds is my home. I was born here, I chose to stay and study here and I don’t plan on leaving once I’ve graduated. I wish the same could be said for my University friends, the majority of whom will be packing up and heading South for London or across to Manchester before we’ve even put on our caps and gowns!

London (and Manchester in fact) seems to be the dream for a lot of young professionals starting out in their careers. I asked a couple of my friends at University (the majority of which have done a host of internships and placements) what their post-graduation plans were and I got a mixed response: 

Max: “I’ll be staying in Leeds, the opportunities are some of the best I have experienced (especially coming from a small town in Devon). I have not been out of work since I’ve been at Uni and the relationships formed with colleagues over my placement year has resulted in them offering me a job which I am going to take! The cost of living, facilities within the city and the people make it a great place to live.”

Jenna: “Apartments are a lot cheaper here than the big cities so you get far more for your money, meaning a better quality of life. Leeds feels like a really safe city and has everything Manchester has, but on a slightly smaller scale - shopping and nightlife is great too. Plus I already have a job here, so that’s definitely a reason for staying”

Hannah: “I’m moving to London mainly because I feel that there are far more opportunities for agency work in London. You have bigger agencies with more chances to move up and continue to climb in your career. Also, it’s the home of all the major news groups! - Why not be at the heart of everything??”

Hannah M: “I stayed in Leeds because I got a job at the top PR agency in Yorkshire in the sector I wanted to work in. I have quite a few friends still here in Leeds so the social scene is good for me - especially with Belgrave, Merrion Street, Call Lane - I love all the independent places and shops in Leeds!”

Erin: “I don’t think I’ll be staying in Leeds after graduation - although there are a lot of agency opportunities here, personally I’m planning on pursuing a career in-house and there are fewer opportunities for that in Leeds, than in comparison to other cities such as Manchester and London. However, with the graduate job market being so fiercely competitive I am applying for jobs anywhere and I’m happy to relocate for the right job.”

Emma: “I am fortunate to be able to move back to London and live rent free (for now!) at my parents house - that’s my #1 motive for moving back to London - I’m sure I’d feel differently if that wasn’t the case. With that said, the opportunities in Leeds are brilliant (I’ve worked at two agencies across Yorkshire and had positive experiences at both) but I love the breadth of opportunities in London as well as the fast-paced nature of day-to-day life. I couldn’t imagine working anywhere else in the UK post-Uni.”

Lucy: “I’m planning on leaving to Leeds and moving to Manchester as I feel it’s a great city for graduates and I would prefer to be somewhere else when I graduate, in terms of more opportunities and feeling like i’m moving on to a new chapter. I just associate Leeds with living as a student and for me Manchester or London feels more out of my comfort zone as they’re bigger with more going on.”

Hannah: “I’m moving back home after graduation, purely because I won’t have the funds to put a deposit down on a flat anywhere else right away. So I’m going home to save some money and then my aim is to move to Manchester, Cambridge or London - wherever I can get a decent job really. Same as Lucy, we have spend so long as students in Leeds I’d like to try somewhere new.”


A couple of months ago, Karen Finlayson from PwC delivered a lecture on talent retention at Leeds Beckett University, it was the first thing I had really heard on the issue and I was a little surprised to see how the graduate movement stats stacked up for Leeds and the Yorkshire region.

According to data from ‘The Great British Brain Drain,’ only 27% of all students who moved to Leeds to study, stayed in Leeds after graduation; comparatively, cities such as London have a 76.9% retention rate, Manchester 51.5% and Birmingham 49.4%. Additional insight also shows that 1.8% of graduates that neither lived or studied in Leeds moved to Leeds after graduation, a seemingly small figure but actually the 4th largest share in the UK. These figures suggest that talent retention is a cross-sector issue and not just one within the creative and communication industry.

So, as much as the reduction in competition is a great thing for me, cities outside of London, particularly in the North need to be doing more to keep and attract talented graduates and young professionals. Although I do want to stay here, I do have some reservations about whether I will be as successful as I could be if I moved to London. I also have a few opinions from a student's perspective, on what the city needs to be doing more of, to encourage students to stay here post-graduation.


Career Progression and development:

1.     Businesses should be more forthcoming in offering work experience and internships to students. This a) helps to develop better qualified and equipped graduates and b) helps students to get a foot in the door in Leeds based companies, making them more confident that they will be able to get a job here in the city once they’ve graduated. It also enables them to start building their networks of professionals, employers and potential colleagues and clients - something they would have to start from scratch with if they left the city. Get in touch with any of the fantastic Universities in the city and offer placement experiences - even more importantly, value student’s time and pay them for it!

2.     It would be great to see more industry events in the city, with the invite extended to students. A couple of weeks ago I travelled to London and back via Manchester to attend two great PRCA events. I think the local branches of our professional bodies need to be doing more to include students and make it clear that cities outside of London are just as valued and well considered as our southern counterparts. The North sometimes gets a bad rep for being way behind the capital, so it would be reassuring to know that PR professionals in Leeds are just as up to date and connected as they are in London, and you can be just as successful here.

3.     Leading on from the first two points, more general networking sessions (where students are encouraged to attend and made to feel welcome and comfortable) would be a great way to help build connections and make students feel like a valued member of the local professional community.

4.     GUEST LECTURES! I love hearing from professionals - especially those currently working in Leeds. If you have an interesting story about how being in Leeds has helped to advance your career, consider getting in touch with the Universities and offer to come in and speak to students. Help to inspire them and demonstrate how staying in Leeds can help you to flourish in your career whilst giving them an insight into the local industry.

5.     Again, on a similar vine - consider working with the Universities to offer client briefs and projects. There is many a practical module where agencies and companies can get involved to provide briefs, offer mentorship and in return get some fantastic insight and ideas from students. It's a win win and goes towards showcasing the exciting projects going on in the city.

6.     Do more to promote client wins and exciting projects to students. I am guilty of assuming that Northern companies miss out on the big clients, big budgets and exciting projects. I think agencies in particular need to be doing more to showcase how exciting staying in the city can be, and how students don’t need to head to the big smoke to work on the big name briefs.

7.     Highlight connectivity to the rest of the UK and internationally. I'm sure that a lot of Leeds agencies are regularly back and forth to London and although I don't want to live there I would like to visit regularly for work and events; getting the best of both worlds. It's also nice to know that I can work internationally from Yorkshire and that the region is connected to the rest of the world!

8.     It would be great if Northern offices of national/international agencies promoted themselves more to students. Students aren't always aware that they don't have to go to London to get a change at working with a renowned agency - nor is it always clear how the work is divided up - do the regional offices get the naff jobs? Do they just work on regional briefs or do they get a hand in the nationals?

9.     Companies need to actively show graduates that they want them, and they are serious about getting the best talent. Graduates know that they will be starting at the bottom of the ladder, but I think the days of having to beg for unpaid internships or believing that they are a burden not an asset are gone. Attend recruitment fairs at the University, consider developing graduate roles and connect with staff on relevant course to advertise vacancies. Graduates are a wealth of talent and potential - if you don’t use it, you’ll lose it!

Leeds Lifestyle

In terms of the city itself, I recently undertook a research project for the Leeds 2023 bid around student engagement with culture in the city. One of the discussion points was that more needs to be done to engage and integrate students with the city, and help to break them out of the University bubble. Students need to be able to envisage a life for themselves in the city as young professionals, outside the confines of campus and student nights. Perhaps we need to do more to introduce students to the... SUBURBS! The fantastic culture scene in Leeds needs to do more to welcome students and help them to discover the exciting, typically ‘non-student’ things there are to do in the city. Showcasing just how exciting the city is, how much there is to do and how rapidly it's changing and developing may help to diminish the allure of the big city!

In terms of the practical lifestyle on offer in Leeds, it's a complete no-brainer for me. I don't think enough students are aware of the 'boring adult things' such as rent, commuting and work-life balance. As someone who pays less than £500pm for a 2-bed house, I couldn't fathom paying twice as much for a room in shared house on the outskirts of London. (Although perhaps there is room for financial support for graduates who are looking for employment whilst trying to secure rental agreements at the same time!) Plus, three hours of commuting each day really starts to take the shine off the bright city lights. And when that burn-out starts to kick in, (see the recent PRCA report on mental health in the PR industry) the fact that Leeds has a slightly slower pace of life and is surrounded by the glory that is Yorkshire; meaning you can be out of the city and into the countryside in no time is both incredible and important.

I'm not sure where the responsibility falls for sharing this “boring adult knowledge” with students but I think the reality of the situation should be discussed with students sooner!


I have been fortunate enough to do lots of work experience and work on some exciting client briefs, particularly with Leeds City Council, during my time at Leeds Beckett. I feel that I have made so many valuable connections with people and companies in the city that it would be foolish to move away now. The people you know is such a big part of this industry and if you can give students a foot up and build their confidence before they even graduate, it can only be a good thing.

An analogy I always come back to when explaining my reasons for staying in the city, is the idea that I would rather be a big fish in a little pond than a tiny minnow in the ocean that is London. I think Leeds has everything I need and will give me a much better quality of life, but perhaps that's my mature head speaking. Even if we can't convince students to completely pass on London/Manchester, we should still be embedding the idea that they can come back to us once London has chewed them up and spat them out, and we’ll be here welcoming them with open arms, lots of opportunity, and cheap(er) rent!


  1. Good post. I doubt you'd be a tiny minnow for long in London - though you make a good case for staying where you are. Very wise!

  2. Nice post, thanks so much for this sharing!

  3. Nice post!

    I am from London. I moved to Leeds in September 2012 to study at the University of Leeds, and I moved back to London in February 2017. I moved back because I missed London, there were loads more opportunities here and I wanted to be closer to my friends (who, like myself, are Londoners born and bred).

    I totally agree with you though. More needs to be done to increase the rate of graduate retention in Leeds. Leeds is a great city with a lot to offer (plus, it's cheaper and slower). But in order for the city to thrive a lot more, more opportunities need to be available and students need to be aware that you don't have to move to London or Manchester to succeed.

    Also: £500pcm for a two-bedroom house?! That's amazing! For myself, that would be the dream!