Monday, October 11, 2010

Brain Drain Report: South Dakota

Last week, Mike Knutson (ReImagine Rural) wrote three posts about South Dakota and Patrick Carr. Carr co-authored "Hollowing Out the Middle", a book about rural brain drain. Both Carr and Knutson were in South Dakota to discuss these outmigration issues at a time when the state was celebrating brain gain:

Information like this is to be celebrated. I’m proud to hear that our mostly rural state has stepped over the line to become a net importer of talent. Sadly, I suspect the information speaks more to the economy of Sioux Falls and Rapid City than those of the small towns Patrick Carr focuses on.

Knutson's speculation is an important consideration, one that doesn't stand out in Carr's book. South Dakota is doing well because its cities are thriving. The economic boom is at the expense of the rural communities that Knutson champions. Carr frames brain drain in a way that has the entire state (urban and rural) struggling. The idea that talent is running off to Chicago or the Coasts is both misleading and counterproductive.

The South Dakota Department of Labor (DOL) has been working to reverse the brain drain through a worker recruitment program called Dakota Roots.

The effort was launched four years ago and connects out-of-state residents who formerly lived in South Dakota to career opportunities with South Dakota’s leading businesses.

“We are approaching the time of year that draws many former South Dakotans back to our state – pheasant hunting season,” said State Labor Secretary Pam Roberts. “This is the perfect opportunity to remind returning family members and friends about our jobs and sign them up with Dakota Roots.”

As you might guess, most career opportunities with "South Dakota's leading businesses" will be in the cities (e.g. Sioux Falls and Rapid City). Carr overlooks the misaligned interests within the Middle. I suspect that the talent migration patterns reveal an inconvenient truth; one that doesn't sell books or land you speaking engagements. Quite frankly, the brain drain discussion is a waste of time and resources.

The Middle is no longer hollowing out. It is growing and becoming more educated:

About four of every 10 students at South Dakota State University this year are the first in their families to pursue a degree.

That percentage of first-generation students is higher than in many other universities. In part, it's a reflection of South Dakota's rural landscape, where many farming and manufacturing jobs still do not require a college education.

But the high number of first-generation students also underscores the shift in attitude and economics under way in many small towns and rural areas as young people realize fewer jobs are available in their communities. It also shows that thousands of South Dakota students are choosing a path that could bring better opportunities and higher-paying jobs.

If they succeed and make it all the way to earn a degree, many could help fuel South Dakota's economy. But many of them will find jobs outside South Dakota as well, continuing a trend of exporting some of the state's brightest residents.

Another way to look at the numbers is that the Middle is becoming more urbanized. It also explains how South Dakota has transformed into a net importer of college educated talent. More natives are going to college, particularly from rural areas. In general (I'm not aware of any exceptions) states retain the majority of their college graduates. Some states do better than others. I would expect an increase in the number of college graduates to result in a net brain gain for the state. I'd also expect it to increase the total number of migrants leaving the state. The result could be a shrinking population but greater educational attainment rates.

The growing number of college educated in South Dakota helps to attract like talent from other nearby states. I'd be interested to know how much the outmigration rate changed. Are talent retention rates up substantially? I wouldn't be surprised if that was the case. The state's economy looks like it could absorb the extra graduates. That's little consolation for the rural areas.

No comments: