Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Brain Drain Report: Boomerang Michigan

Florida needs to talk with New Jersey. At the bottom (I hope it's the bottom) of the Great Recession, I see the Sun Belt going down the road all too familiar to Frost Belt states. To wit:

For many of Florida's top high school graduates, attending college in state, where tuition is cheap and financial assistance is generous, seems like a no-brainer.

But hefty tuition increases and changes to Bright Futures scholarships could prompt more students to go out of state, potentially costing Florida some of its most talented students and future workers.

You might remember my recent post about New Jersey wondering if such subsidies actually worked or might be unfair to high school graduates who are more likely to stay instate. I suspect the usual funding gambit (brain drain boondoggle) is being used in Florida. Regardless, the policy logic is deeply flawed. Superstars come and go, but getting more adults into community college is worthy of investment.

Which brings me to yesterday's promise to further explore Michigration:

I work in government workforce development, which basically means I’m surrounded by a lot of self-proclaimed old white guys. All of these men ask how can we save Michigan? How we can transform Michigan? How we can revitalize Michigan? And how we can attract and retain “talent”?

So, as a 20-something blonde female who graduated from Michigan State University and has made my home and career in greater Lansing, I’m often held up as a poster child for said talent. As the end result of what good things will come to Michigan if more people like me stay. “See, she’s smart and talented and spends money in the community and values the arts… let’s get more of her!”

And yes, I intended to leave Michigan after graduation, so maybe I really am the poster child. I grew up in Illinois and when my family moved to Michigan in middle school, I still considered Illinois my home. I planned to return, but somehow I ended up at MSU. And then I planned to go to New York or Chicago after graduation, but I got a job, and met a boy, and settled down here. That was seven years ago. ...

...And now, with equity in my home and a solid career, I’m watching a lot of my friends boomerang back to Michigan. They’re in debt up to their eyeballs because of extravagant lifestyles with high costs of living. They’ve been saddled with D.C. and California size mortgages. They have no connections and are struggling to find jobs. They’re lonely, so they call me a lot, and I feel bad because a lot of the time I’m already busy with my “other” friends. I kind of want to say to the boomerangers, “See, you should have stayed too…” but I don’t.

I see lots of plans to reach out to the brains who left, but few (if any) ideas about how to facilitate the boomerang migration. The prevailing attitude, articulated above, is still "you shouldn't have left." What to do about the superstars who will, inevitably, leave?

I know for certain that retention isn't the answer. Your latest brain drain plug initiative will fail. Instead, I suggest building a boomerang migration incubator. The idea is starting to get noticed in other policy circles. I hope to scale up what I'm doing in Youngstown to the entire state of Ohio. But any shrinking Rust Belt city would be a good candidate for the program. I'd love to see it come to fruition in my hometown of Erie (PA). But perhaps Flint would be interested?

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