In Praise of Michigan Brain Drain - Pacific Standard

In Praise of Michigan Brain Drain

Talent retention is not a key driver of economic vitality. If it were, Chicago and New York City would be in a world of trouble. But that doesn't stop many from resorting to the tired brain drain refrain.
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The Biomedical Science Research Building at the University of Michigan Medical School. (PHOTO: WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)

The Biomedical Science Research Building at the University of Michigan Medical School. (PHOTO: WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)

The brain drain out of Michigan is so bad it has its own term. Michigration describes the chronic talent exodus from this Rust Belt hellhole. Once you graduate from university, you get out of Detroit, Flint, Lansing, Grand Rapids, and even Ann Arbor as fast as you can. Life is elsewhere, namely Chicago. However, all the outmigration anxiety is misplaced, bogus. Michigan doesn't have a brain drain problem.

Apparently, Michigan eschews data-driven analysis. For Detroit, this aversion poses an existential threat. People with power to do something fabricate imperatives based on folklore:

“Talent retention is a key driver of economic vitality,” said Benjamin Erulkar, vice president of economic development for the Detroit Regional Chamber. “States that continue to lose their talented graduates will fall behind in the global economy. While this survey is clearly good news, there is a lot of work to do to increase Michigan’s success in talent retention and development.”

Talent retention is not a key driver of economic vitality. If it were, Chicago and New York City would be in a world of trouble. Benjamin Erulkar is shooting from the hip. He's wrong. He's playing fast and loose with Detroit's future.

Not everyone parrots the tired brain drain refrain. A more practical approach:

And many graduates who leave end up in Chicago, New York City, and other cities.

The MEDC has been targeting Michigan graduates in these areas, as well as in Washington, D.C., Palo Alto, California, and Austin, Texas. They’ve hosted MichAGAIN job fairs with Michigan employers in an effort to bring graduates back to the Great Lakes state.

"It's not uncommon for young people to choose to locate somewhere else, and so part of what we have to do is make sure that we stay connected to them, we don't lose the identity of them being a 'Michigan' alumni," said Michael Finney, president and CEO of the Michigan Economic Development Corp.

I have first-hand experience with the difficulties of enticing expatriates to return. It's an uphill battle with a meager return on investment. Regardless, the targeted efforts are an indicator of economic health in Michigan. Global cities are teaming with Mitten State graduates. The wayward are easy to spot during the Stanley Cup playoffs, cheering on the Red Wings and annoying other bar patrons in Manhattan. Few states produce so much in-demand talent. So, how can places benefit from the development of people? That's the question the Detroit Regional Chamber should be asking.

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