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Indiana 'brain drain' draws concerns at Purdue

Sunday, April 28, 2013 - 1:55 pm

WEST LAFAYETTE — In a few weeks, Ashley Robbins will join thousands of Purdue University students in graduation ceremonies.

But unlike most of those wrapping up their studies on the West Lafayette campus, Robbins will start her professional career nearby.

Robbins plans to start work this fall at Find8 Digital, a Lafayette media marketing company where she excelled as an intern.

"It was mid-February or early March when they first expressed interest in wanting me to stay on," Robbins said. "I was surprised and ecstatic, because I didn't think they would want to hire on an intern."

The professional writing student is bucking a widespread trend.

Nearly 93 percent of Purdue graduates leave Tippecanoe County within a year of finishing school, according to data gathered by the Indiana Commission for Higher Education.

And just a third of Purdue graduates are working in Indiana five years after graduation. The migration of young college graduates from the Hoosier State — often referred to as the "brain drain" — is a pattern that economic development experts, area employers and politicians are working to reverse.

Although officials could not point to any fixed data showing the economic consequences of these graduates leaving, an article written by Timothy Slaper of the Indiana Business Research Center showed a correlation between Indiana's per capita personal income and higher levels of education.

In the study, Slaper said a state's per capita personal income increased when there was a high concentration of high-tech and business occupations that require post-secondary education.

Indiana has a higher concentration of production and manufacturing jobs. That means graduates who are seeking employment with their degree might find more opportunities outside the state. When they leave, it affects the state's per capita personal income.

Purdue shares the burden with the state's other major public institutions. Indiana University's Bloomington campus recorded just an 8.1 percent retention rate for students remaining in the county a year after graduation. Ball State University's retention rate after a year was 8.3 percent.

Retention rates are influenced by many factors, including the availability of local employment, said Timothy Luzader, director of the Purdue University Center for Career Opportunities.

There's also the perception that cities such as Lafayette won't offer the same earning potential as nearby metropolitan areas, including Chicago.

When Robbins, the professional writing student, first started looking for work, she didn't think Lafayette would offer a job pool as competitive as Chicago or other major metropolitan areas.

"I want to get into user experience design and Web development," Robbins said, "and I thought that it is not something that would flourish in smaller cities."

Others leave to avoid getting stuck.

Nastassja Richardson, a Lafayette resident and 2012 Purdue graduate, hopes to soon put her wildlife biology degree to work in Denver or Portland.

She'll leave behind her family, but Richardson said she is drawn to the allure of anonymity offered by a big city and the promise of more things to do.

"So many people that live here just never leave, and I don't want to be one of those people . and I don't particularly like the idea of having a yard," she said.

The commission's data also indicated higher retention rates for smaller colleges and satellite schools.

For example, although the West Lafayette campus had a retention rate of 7.1 percent of graduates in the Tippecanoe County workforce, other schools, such as Purdue Calumet and Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne, boasted retention rates of 42.1 and 45.7 percent, respectively, after their students' first years out of school.

"My sense is that a larger percentage of students at regional campuses or small to midsize schools are originally from that community," Luzader said. "More (of these) students are interested in staying closer to home and place more focus of their job search efforts in the local area."

The retention data, which measured graduation figures between 2000 and 2005, stem from a statewide system known as the Indiana workforce intelligence system. It was gathered in collaboration with the Indiana Department of Education, Indiana Business Research Center at Indiana University and the Department of Workforce Development.

"(The system) was designed because the agencies wanted to know what happens to students when they go into the workforce because graduating college isn't the end for these students," said Molly Chamberlin, associate commissioner for research and information with the higher education commission.

The data have limitations, Chamberlin said, since the system looks only at workforce records and doesn't include private institutions. But overall, she said the results confirmed trends that officials expected.

Lafayette-area economic development experts also have been monitoring the issue.

Joseph Seaman, president and CEO of Greater Lafayette Commerce, said chamber officials have been looking at this issue for some time. The reality is that Lafayette cannot compete with the retention rate of cities such as Indianapolis and Chicago, he said.

"The retention rate of cities such as Bloomington and Lafayette are never going to be real high, because we don't have ... (the) 7,000 job opportunities they do each year," Seaman said. "We can absorb some of it, but we can never be at the higher end."

Improving retention is a task that Tim Powers, president of School Datebooks, believes has to start long before a student purchases a cap and gown for commencement.

The Lafayette firm, which manufactures products including planners, agendas and calendars, has taken an active role in hiring young Purdue graduates.

More than two-thirds of the company's 65 full-time employees are Boilermakers, which Powers attributes to his company's strong relationship with Purdue. The company brings in dozens of interns each semester.

"Brain drain is the common term," Power said, "but to try to eliminate some of that. You've got to ... throw that invitation out while they're students so they know that there's more to Lafayette than what they see when they drive onto campus."

A report designed to steer Greater Lafayette into the future, called "From Good to Great: Making Greater Lafayette a Community of Choice," was released in September by Madison, Wis., consulting firm Next Generation Consulting. It affirms Powers' sentiment.

The Community of Choice plan, which is being implemented by a Quality of Life Council spearheaded by Greater Lafayette Commerce, say the community's key goals should be retaining young talent by increasing job opportunities and establishing a stronger relationship between Purdue and the rest of the area.

Seaman said Greater Lafayette Commerce wants to try new initiatives, such as having more job fairs at Purdue that focus on local businesses.

A new downtown Lafayette 'co-working' space also is an attempt to attract young entrepreneurs to settle in Tippecanoe County after graduating from Purdue.

"We are always trying to make this a better place to live, work and raise a family," Seaman said.

Politicians also are focused on improving retention figures.

"I don't want to see every kid that graduates go down to Indy," U.S. Sen. Joe Donnelly said during a March visit to Lafayette's Wabash National Corp. "(We have) so many great towns."

Donnelly, a moderate legislator who recently came out in support of marriage equality, hinted at that meeting that he believed Indiana's traditionally conservative stance when it comes to gay marriage could be playing a role in brain drain.

"I want Indiana to be a welcoming place," Donnelly said. "We're competing for talent in a (global) market."

Not everyone rags on Lafayette as a bad place to settle after graduation.

Matthew Shively, a 2010 Purdue graduate, has worked in the Lafayette area a little more than two years. After being home for a year after graduation, he learned of a government position in Lafayette being a storm water technician. He was thrilled when he landed the job.

While his ultimate goal is to return to his hometown — Claypool, in Kosciusko County — Shively said he likes Lafayette because it is a midsize city.

"I wanted to stay close to home, and I liked Purdue and I liked this area because I was familiar with it, so I was hoping to find something here even if it was temporary," Shively said.

With graduation looming, Robbins still dreams of eventually ending up in a larger city, but starting her career in Lafayette offers benefits of its own, she said.

"It's not just me working for them," Robbins said. "It's them letting me do more and build my career."