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Don’t lose your mind over ‘brain drain’ - focus on creating talent

A new report documents the mobility of highly educated people in the United States, offering a grim new portrait of how such movement affects communities:

“Some states today are keeping and receiving a greater share of these adults than they used to, while many others are both hemorrhaging their homegrown talent and failing to attract out-of-staters who are highly educated,” said the report, “Losing Our Minds: Brain Drain across the United States,” by the Senate Joint Economic Committee, an advisory panel for Congress.

The information is great, of course, but it’s nothing new. State and local leaders have spent decades discussing, fretting, strategizing and throwing up their hands about brain drain.

The report does a fine job of presenting historical data, charting in- and out-migration of highly educated individuals, mainly from middle American states to coastal states and cities. It moves from there to discuss how this shift of highly educated people has contributed to the political and social enmity we’re experiencing as a nation.

I’d like to suggest that the hand-wringing about brain drain, and the concern about how the stratifying effect of higher education contributes to social decline, only really makes sense if you view higher education and talent as a zero-sum game.

This was a common view decades ago, but through the hard and incremental work of building partnerships and investing in talent, many cities and states are finally figuring out that competing for the same 30 percent of the workforce is a sucker’s bet. More and more communities are instead focused on creating new opportunities for the people who stay.

In some very informal conversations I’ve had with economic developers and community leaders, I hear a lot of comments along the lines of, “well, City X has mountains.” I have yet to hear a compelling solution emerge from conversations that start this way, having no mountain-growing kit handy.

And then there are community leaders who are bullish on their cities as “hidden gems,” pontificating that “if only more people knew our amazing arts district or great people, our problems would be solved.” Listen—it’s an attractive, easy thing to say. And there are wonderful things about every single city and town in this country.

A growth strategy must be more than marketing; it’s not enough to simply point at snowy peaks outside the window. A person’s decision to relocate is never just the product of great advertising.

Smart cities and states are tossing aside the old methods of community and economic development and figuring out how to grow from within, and to grow inclusively. That means doing things differently: providing support and opportunities for historically marginalized populations to gain education; creating financial supports for adults to complete a credential; holding postsecondary institutions accountable for the unacceptable differences in outcomes between white learners and learners of color; and coordinating across communities to make sure everyone has the support they need, from food and housing to transportation to mentoring to work experience.

These smart cities are creating more talent—because they understand that talent doesn’t only come in the form of a bachelor’s degree from a selective institution, and that talent isn’t a fixed sum.

My colleague Jesse O’Connell and I recently wrote a Medium post about the college admissions scandal, and what we discussed bears repeating: If we continue to view selective institutions as the only worthy path to a thriving future, we will fail. If we continue to view bachelor’s-degree-or-more holders as the only folks who matter in our economy, we will fail. If we continue to marginalize the talent that is in our communities—working behind counters, pursuing trades, learning behind bars—we will fail.

So read that brain drain report—there is some good information in it—but read it with a grain of salt, and then take that information and turn it into action. Each of us can do something today to support talent in our communities and states, from mentoring a young learner, to providing an opportunity for an employee, to donating to a scholarship fund, and a thousand other things. We need to cultivate our own talent. The brains we need have been here all along.

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Tracy Chen
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A series of reports show investing in employee tuition reimbursement yields significant financial payback.
See Talent Investment series