An overflowing crowd of both state and local elected leaders, school superintendents, business and community leaders gathered at the Huntingburg Event Center Thursday to address "Plugging the Brain Drain" in our rural counties. Key facts: Our rural counties of southwest Indiana have lost 15 percent of our young adults ages 25-44 since 2000. Our rural schools in southwest Indiana have lost 7.5 percent of our student population over the decade. Bluntly, this is an unsustainable loss of population for our rural communities and schools.
Charmaine McDowell, Director of USI's Center for Human Resource Development, shared the highlights of the book, Hollowing Out the Middle, which shares the ways in which young adults in rural communities make their decisions. There are Achievers (those who go away to college and are encouraged to "make it big" away from home), the Stayers (those who take jobs upon graduation, but often remain stagnate in a job without higher skills development), the Seekers (individual who can't wait to get out of town and often joins the military), the Returners (who go away to get a degree with every intention of returning), and, finally, the Boomerangs (those who leave town as an Achiever, but choose to return later, often as an entrepreneur).
The book's research uncovers the reality that we (parents, teachers and community leaders) give our Achievers early signals that they are gifted and should do great things "away from here". Further, we invest too little in our Stayers as workers and community leaders. A significant recognition of Summit participants was that we do little to ensure our students understand the career opportunities which do exist locally.
Six breakout teams, 250 ideas and a handful of converged solutions were developed including the need to "brand" our rural identity as one that is attractive to young adults. Some of our solutions included: development of venture capital to finance start-ups in our rural communities; an effort to link local students to employers; an effort to engage young people in boards and civic organizations; educating elected officials on key strategic issues; and the development of a regional strategic plan.
Brain drain is not a "one solution" problem. All those present were encouraged to take the ideas they liked and implement them within their own schools and communities. I would be remiss, however, if I didn't recognize that we all have a role to play. Parents, please encourage your children to explore careers that they can someday "bring back home". Businesses, please consider hiring our local students as interns in high school and college so they can "taste" the job opportunities in our communities. Educators, please let students know that to be successful, they don't have to move away - and they most certainly don't need to stay away forever. Residents, much rests on you. Our pride (or lack thereof) and how we speak about our community will affect how others, especially our young people, see our communities and their future in it.
The competition for our young people is great. However, I have confidence that we can transform brain drain to brain gain within this decade. I hope you will join me and the nearly 150 Summit participants in this challenge.
Rep. Sue Ellspermann (R-Ferdinand)