New governor should plug brain drain

Graduation CapYou would hardly know it from the campaign for governor, but Wisconsin has more than a brain drain; it has a brain hemorrhage.

Ask Wisconsin parents and grandparents who have watched their offspring with college degrees move to other states with better job prospects. They tell me how much they miss their kids and grandkids. Their anecdotes put flesh on analyses that show the state losing more than 10,000 college grads per year.

That’s as big number, equal to about one-quarter of all the annual graduates from UW System campuses. The loss contributes to Wisconsin’s lagging percentage of the population holding at least a bachelor’s degree: 27% in 2012, two points below the U.S. average. Minnesota is at 33%.

Both candidates devote about a page to the issue in their campaign white papers on the economy.

In his paper, Gov. Walker cites the erosion of graduates and the need to fill 925,000 job vacancies by 2018, of which 61% will require a postsecondary degree. “We can build on what already has been done to encourage more college graduates to stay in Wisconsin,” he says.

His specific actions and proposals include: a welcome home program for Wisconsin alumni, a flexible degree that allows adults to get credits for experience and reposition themselves in the job market; an improved tax climate; and a potential program to keep international students here after graduation.

His challenger, Mary Burke, cites the need for 670,000 more degreed workers in the next 12 years. “We’re not going to meet that objective if the bright minds we send to the universities and technical colleges then leave the state because they can’t find career opportunities – or quality of life – they seek,” she says.

Her proposals, if elected, include: closer ties between colleges and employers for internships and other work experiences; a statewide data base for internships; robust linkages between college placement offices and employers; financial inducements to stay, such as tax deductions for student loan payments; quality of life issues like marriage equality, improved broadband access and accessible transportation; help for foreign students in science, technology, math and engineering who graduate and want to stay here.

There are plenty of analysts who say that a state’s or region’s prosperity links directly to its treasure chest of smart, young people. Booming Denver’s population of people aged 25-34 grew 47% from 2000 to 2012, while the Milwaukee metro area saw that bracket grow at 15.5%.

There is a ying and yang between the density of young graduates and economic growth. The graduates may take a fling for a year or two, but then go looking for a career. Milwaukee has been growing slowly and pays a price. “That’s the ying. Its quality of life and emerging startup scene have produced some growth in that demographic. The yang is that companies want to be where there is a healthy pool of skilled youngsters.

At the end of the day, job creation is the answer to plugging the brain drain. That’s why both candidates have correctly made it their central issue in the campaigns. We need our kids and grandkids to stay here or move back.

Whoever becomes governor needs to create a Council of Economic Advisors, and that council should make the brain drain one of the priority metrics it tracks, right behind job creation. They go hand in hand.

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  • Nathan DauSchmidt

    Some ideas I had from one Millennial’s perspective (UW grad who moved away for 2 years before coming back):

    – State income tax credit for University students that graduate in Wisconsin, and go to work in Wisconsin. This could be scaled back slightly and only apply to those graduates who stay and are also paying off student loan debt. This is better than trying to give incentives to employers and hope they trickle down onto young grads. This could also take the form of a refund from UW and coupled with UW allowed to raise tuition. So if you graduate from UW system and work for 2 years in Wisconsin UW sends you a check for $2k or something. That would mean that UW could raise tuition by $500/year and those who stay and are paying taxes here wouldn’t see an increase–just those that leave.

    – Places with lots of foreclosures (Milwaukee) could work to get young college graduates with jobs who plan to live in foreclosure houses themselves. Some type of program which would help roll student loan debt and the mortgage debt together. You get 40 college educated millenials invested in a neighborhood and you’ll start seeing some of the positive side of gentrification (part of Milwaukee could use some of that) and increase tax base.

    Obviously there are problems with both of these–and definitely can be construed as unfair to other types of people.

    • JohnTorinus

      I like both ideas. Keeping the young movers and shakers here would be a financial win for the state. Any credits would be more than offset by the state taxes on their higher incomes.

  • Bill Kraus

    What the new governor should also do is deal with early childhood development so there are more brains to stop from draining.

    • Nathan DauSchmidt

      Hear, hear! Most bang for your buck comes early on. Helps get both parents into the labor force too.

  • Noel Radomski

    And yet many UW campuses (4-year universities) are recruiting/admitting/enrolling more non-resident and international students. The data clearly shows that most do not stay in WI after graduation. And the trend for international students who remain in WI is troublesome–many are now funded by their governments which require them to return to their country, esp. China. So what can the WI do?

    1. Business and state leaders must encourage campus leaders to incorporate critical and frequent messages during campus visits and freshman orientation that they should pursue internships and co-ops in WI businesses. Hell, I’d say mandate them.

    2. Second, business and state leaders need to “encourage” deans to require internships and co-ops as part of their students’ graduation requirements. This will increase the probability of companies to recruit students and for students to want to live and work in Wisconsin.

    3. Campuses (private and public 2- and 4-year colleges and universities) must respond affirmatively and aggressively to #1 and #2.

    4. Campuses (private and public 2- and 4-year colleges and universities)need to respond to market forces, esp. UW-Madison, and aggressively pursue business-university partnerships. They should include an array of options: internships and co-ops, faculty/staff consultations, translational research, access to university laboratories, new faculty “sabbaticals” that provides financial incentives to “live and work” in Wisconsin companies R&D units.

    5. Campuses (private and public 2- and 4-year colleges and universities) should create “conference” and state-wide business competitions. Right now many institutions do so on their own campus, but it’s time to create a new Governor’s Business Start-Up Competition exclusively for college students. Perhaps one strand for undergraduates and a second strand for graduate students.

    6. Campuses (private and public 2- and 4-year colleges and universities) hold numerous career fairs, often campuses offer numerous fairs every year and in the future they should partner w/ WMC, Competitive WI, WI Tech Council, and others and create a career fairs BEFORE they open up the career fair the second day for non-WI companies. The current trend is that companies pay the multiple career services offices on campuses and those folks get early access to future employees. Wisconsin businesses should be first: they pay WI taxes and they support in numerous ways our public and private colleges and universities.

    7. Like the WI Technical College “main” campus and regional campuses, more public colleges and universities need to be convinced that schools & colleges at their university should diversify their boards to include WI business leaders. If they don’t have a school or college then business leaders near those campuses should encourage the chancellor/president to kick start the process.

    8. Some college and universities have an overall board of advisors/visitors and if they do then the presidents/chancellors need to review the composition of the members. I’m not speaking of foundation boards, which is the place most business leaders are placed. We need presidents and chancellors to bring business leaders on campus and to listen to and, where appropriate, act on their needs. Other opportunities will emerge that may not have been expected.

    Debbie Downer Note: Many states have tried tax credits and loan forgiveness if students stay in the state, but those have limited to no effect.

    There are many other ideas, but the key take-away is that our college/university/system chancellors, presidents, and deans need to act differently and unfortunately many don’t until they are expected to do so.

    Noel Radomski


    Director/Research, WISCAPE

    • Nathan DauSchmidt


      Appreciate the detailed response.

      My take on a few points: As for international/out-of-state students who leave, I’m less concerned about that since they are paying significantly ($30k+ and living expenses) and keeping our institutions prestigious on a national/international level (as long as we aren’t letting them in with lower standards). That money can help keep instate tuition low–but the other part of keeping tuition low is state funding high (which unfortunately has been cut down to 20-35% depending how you count it–but of course the state has 100% say on regents) which is helped by high earners paying back into the kitty with taxes.

      That’s why I suggested incentive programs to keep grads here in Wisconsin. I am unaware (though I have not really looked) for research about where incentive programs have been tried, can you help direct me? By all means, if they don’t work, then we shouldn’t try them–I just thought it was worth exploring.

      Also, I hope you’re talking about paid internships and co-ops–unpaid internships skew the pool of applicants which can pursue them and skew employer’s perception of the cost of labor. Neither of these effects are healthy.

      Once again, thanks for your thoughtful response.

      • JohnTorinus

        The Wisconsin Idea would suggest that the next governor convene a task force to involve our best minds to vet these methods.

    • JohnTorinus

      All good ideas!

      I take note of the comment about the impact of tax breaks.

      It’s more about career opportunities.

  • Bob Dohnal

    John, the Left looks at you guys as cows to milk, not something to nurture.

    • JohnTorinus

      How do you milk a bull?

      • Bob Dohnal

        I did not say that they were smart, they will try.

  • Bob Dohnal

    First thing is to teach inner city kids to read and reduce crime in Milwaukee so people will go there.

  • joseph Kaylor

    I was going to pass on a response after I read some of the cute and shallow inner city bashing. My response, “there are those that make a difference and those that complain”. I don’t have time or patience for the complainers.

    The only issue is the failure of Mr Walker in creating jobs and fostering an economic environment for job opportunity and economic independence. Why would a graduate remain in Wisconsin when we continue to be at the bottom of the list related to job creation? We need a change and we need to rid the system of dark money. It is ironic that we spend money on educating our sons and daughters only to have other states reap the intellectual capital.

    Walker took his eyes off the job issue with Republican ideology. The promise of 250,000 jobs has credibility and accountability issues period. He gets an F for poor performance, just like an inner city kid might get for lack of reading skills.

    • JohnTorinus

      Agree that job creation, the product of high growth startups, is the key to keeping our offspring here.