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Midwestern States Struggle to Stem Brain Drain

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As the population throughout the Midwest ages, states from North Dakota to Kansas are trying desperately to attract and retain college graduates. Employers say that getting more high-skilled workers to replace aging Baby Boomers is one of the most critical problems facing their businesses.

NOAH ADAMS, host:

States in the Midwest are desperately trying to attract and retain recent college graduates. Young professionals continue to flee places like Iowa, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas.

But as NPR's Jason Beaubien reports now, Midwestern states are launching new programs to keep them at home and to attract others.

JASON BEAUBIEN: At a coffee shop in the east village of Des Moines, Isaiah McGee doesn't look like a poster child for Iowa. But he's exactly the type of person the state is trying to attract. He's African-American, college-educated, young, and he wants to make a life in the Midwest.

Mr. ISIAH McGEE (Resident, Des Moines): People care about each other out here. There's a natural affinity. It's almost like a large extended family.

BEAUBIEN: McGee grew up in South Central Los Angeles and came to Iowa for college. Like so many others, he left the state after graduation.

Each year, Iowa, along with other Midwestern states, watches as many of its most highly-educated young people migrate to jobs in Texas, New York or California. McGee says he came back to Iowa because it has a lot to offer - a low crime rate, little traffic, affordable housing, and in the Des Moines area, plenty of jobs.

Mr. McGEE: These aren't your subpar jobs. These are pretty reputable places. And for them to say, hey, we need help, we need people, there's a lot of opportunity, you can write your own ticket out here.

BEAUBIEN: At the age of 29, McGee has started his own company. And in his suburb of Waukee, he was elected to the city council.

But employers here say convincing college grads, eager for the bright lights of a big city, to come to a state that's known predominantly for corn and Big Ten football, remains a challenge.

Kerry Gumm, assistant director of recruiting at Principle Financial Group, says her company recently narrowed its on-campus recruitment efforts to focus mainly on colleges and universities in the Midwest. She understands that not every student is going to be open to coming to Des Moines.

Ms. KERRY GUMM (Assistant Director of Recruiting, Principal Financial Group): There has to be some draw that is going to want them to stay around this area. And a lot of that happens to be family.

BEAUBIEN: Once she gets recruits to Principle's headquarters and shows them the opportunities this Fortune 500 company offers, Gumm says selling them on Des Moines is easier. As the baby boomers start to retire, Gumm adds, getting recent college grads into the company is even more important.

Ms. GUMM: The diversity of thought, the analytical skills that each new generation brings in is a critical component to us, driving our business forward.

BEAUBIEN: Retaining college graduates have become a critical issue to moving the entire Midwest forward. Kansas, North Dakota and Nebraska have all launched initiatives to try to entice recent graduates to stay. There's even competition within the region, with South Dakota angling for workers from Minnesota, and Iowa running billboard ads to try to lure young professionals out of Chicago.

Iowa's governor says the outflow of trained young professionals threatens the very future of his state.

Kyle Carlson heads the Generation Iowa Commission, convened last year to try to address Iowa's brain drain. Carlson says the problem in his state is one of the worst in the nation.

Mr. KYLE CARLSON (Chairman, Generation Iowa Commission): You know, in terms of college students, we actually do a good job of attracting them and getting them to come here and go to school. We educate them, they get their bachelor's degree, and then, statistically, they're leaving in droves. It's not just that we're losing people, it's we're losing our highest-educated people.

BEAUBIEN: Currently, only a third of University of Iowa alumni still live in the state. People who do return tend to come back in their 30s when they want to raise a family. But Carlson says this leaves a huge gap in Iowa's workforce. And he says if the state is going to be economically competitive, Des Moines, Dubuque, Sioux City, need to focus more on the needs of young 20-something professionals.

Isaiah McGee, the transplant from L.A., says it's Iowans' natural humility that's hurting this effort. He says they need to start touting the benefits of their state like it was Texas.

Mr. McGEE: Texas has this great - what I'll call superiority complex. And they believe that they're the best state that ever existed. And that draws people in. I mean, when you really look at it, what does Texas really have to offer? Not much. But it's the image that they go across with that that's kind of appealing.

BEAUBIEN: And at the risk of messing with Texas, McGee says these quiet, friendly Midwesterners need to be just a little less humble and tell outsiders what a great place this is to work and live.

Jason Beaubien, NPR News.

ADAMS: This is NPR, National Public Radio.

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