Study: 'Brain drain' overstated
By PATRICK McARDLE Staff Writer | April 29,2007
Vermont's business and education leaders have been sounding the alarm about the state's "brain drain" problem. They say that educated young people are leaving Vermont in high numbers and that the state risks losing its workforce.
But Vermont isn't the only locale that's concerned about population projections. Major cities such as Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, Memphis, St. Louis and Milwaukee have shown signs of "brain drain" panic, according to USA Today.
In fact, Vermont has some advantages over other areas, and many of the college graduates who are from the state or attended college here would like to return one day, according to a study commissioned by the Vermont Department of Economic Development.
That's among the optimistic findings in the "Growing Vermont's Next Generation Workforce Report," created by TIP Strategies and Next Generation Consulting, in association with the Vermont State Data Center.
Some of the population numbers appear to paint a grim picture. In the last U.S. Census, Vermont ranked last in the nation for population between the ages of 25 and 29. In 1990, Vermont ranked 35th. And the number of Vermonters in that age range dropped 13 percent from 1990 to 2000.
But within the context of New England, Vermont's decline in young adults is not an anomaly. Rhode Island, New Hampshire, Maine, Massachusetts and Connecticut all lost 25- to 29-year-olds at higher rates than Vermont. Those states saw drops of 15.5 percent to 25.5 percent in the same period.
The report says officials in Maine, Ohio and Utah are also concerned about the issue. Even Boston and Philadelphia asked for studies.
David Juvet, a vice president with the New Hampshire Business and Industry Alliance, said a study conducted in his state suggested "troubling" news: The population of people from 18 to 25 was dropping. Many of the young people surveyed in New Hampshire said the high cost of housing had been a reason for leaving the state, and those surveyed in the Vermont study cited the same factor.
"(New Hampshire) does have an influx of people in their mid-30s and 40s moving into the state. I presume that people see it as a good place to raise a family," Juvet said.
Like New Hampshire, Vermont's percentage of population in the older age ranges is significantly higher than it is for 25- to 29-year-olds. For residents in their mid-30s, Vermont is 20th in the United States and the ranking moves up to third place for those in their 40s.
David Silvernail, director of the Center for Education Policy, Applied Research and Evaluation at the University of Southern Maine, said research results for his state also mirrored Vermont's. Those young adults who stayed in Maine did so for social and personal reasons, while those who left were primarily motivated by career concerns.
With so many states or cities concerned about the loss of young people, some observers have reconsidered whether it can be blamed on the characteristics of a particular locale and even whether "brain drain" is an exaggerated phenomenon.
Last year, The Associated Press reported a study that showed the loss of young people in Maine was "not as prevalent as previously believed" and the Philadelphia Inquirer reported in 2004 that the city was actually retaining more college graduates than Boston.
The Vermont report suggested the problem exists but may need to be looked at in a new way, replacing the term "brain drain" with "brain circulation."
"Most young people have the need to leave the nest, and they come wandering back," said Rebecca Ryan, founder and CEO of Next Generation Consulting in Madison, Wis.
Ryan said she believed Vermont was way ahead of other states and communities because it remains an alluring place to live, even for its former residents.
Vermont also has a strong "brand" perception other states don't, according to Karen Beard, an economic analyst with Austin, Texas-based TIP Strategies.
There is a certain cachet to living in Vermont that gives it an edge in winning back residents, Beard said, although not necessarily in retaining young college graduates.
In a survey conducted for the Next Generation Workforce report, about 40 percent of college graduates said they had considered returning to Vermont. A 2006 study found that while 75 percent of those living in Maine saw themselves staying there for the next five years, only 12 percent living outside the state saw themselves returning.
Mike Quinn, Vermont's commissioner of economic development, said the report's finding that young people want to return to Vermont is encouraging.
Quinn said that Gov. James Douglas' plans to foster new housing construction could make the area more attractive to young expatriates.
Officials say Vermont suffers from the misperception that it offers few job opportunities.
The Next Generation Workforce survey showed that many young people didn't believe there were adequate economic opportunities in Vermont. Less than a quarter believed they could find good employment or local support for entrepreneurs.
Ryan said she participated in a number of online message boards during the creation of the report. She said one Vermont college graduate reported that a college official advised the student to leave the state to find work.
According to Quinn, the next step for Vermont is putting together a process for those considering a move back to the state "through marketing channels they're familiar with, and that means a presence on the Internet."
Sen. Douglas Racine, D-Chittenden, said he was aware that some Vermont companies were advertising out of state to fill their hiring needs.
"It's really sad. There are Vermonters who need jobs and Vermont employers who need workers, and we can't match them up," he said.
But Racine said he also believed the idea that young people were leaving Vermont because of a lack of opportunities was "overblown."
"There are certain jobs that are just not here," he said. "It's a small state with small industries. … That doesn't mean Vermont is a bad place. A lot of people want to see the world. … I just think we should be realistic and not beat up on Vermont."
Sen. Vincent Illuzzi, R-Essex-Orleans, was even more blunt.
"Vermont, with certain exceptions — Middlebury, Burlington, the White River area, the more urban areas — is not an exciting place for young people. … It's not the place single people come to. It's just not exciting enough," he said.
Catherine Turissini, project director for TIP Strategies, said it would be difficult to prevent young people who may think "the grass is greener" in another state from wanting to spend some time away from Vermont.
Illuzzi said he recognized that like other New England states that did not have the lure of a city like Boston, Vermont is a place people return to when they want to buy a home and raise a family.
The Douglas administration is concerned about projections that show young people are not coming back to Vermont, leaving the state with an "unsustainable" population, according to Quinn.
Rep. Rachel Weston, D-Burlington, said Vermont was her first choice when she decided to leave Massachusetts. Weston, 25, was drawn to the University of Vermont in Burlington and to the city's vibrant arts and social scene.
Weston said that creating internships for Vermont college students would be an important way to entice young people to remain in the area.
Next Generation Consulting made the internships one of its primary recommendations for that reason, Ryan said. The research showed that recent college graduates with an internship in Vermont were about 75 percent more likely to stay in the state for an extended period of time. Weston said her experience as an intern with the Vermont Commission on Women, affected her decision to stay in Vermont.
That could be enough to turn the tide for Vermont. Ryan said she believed the state was much better off than places like Detroit, which lost a million people between 1990 and 2000.
Ryan, who worked as a consultant for the city of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, said that city needs about 20,000 employees.
"Vermont doesn't need anything like that. Vermont just needs a consistent 'drip, drip, drip' back to the state," she said.
Quinn said the administration is a little more hopeful now that the Next Generation Workforce study is out.
"The report gives us a sense of optimism that the situation is manageable," he said.
Contact Patrick McArdle at email@example.com.