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Brain drain in Alabama: an issue guide for voters

In April of 2022, Reckon and partners including Essential Partners, Cortico, and Bridge Alliance, hosted conversations with Alabamians under 40 about the future of their state for a project called Bridge Alabama. This guide focuses on an issue raised in those conversations.Here are two of the comments that inspired this reporting. From Aiko, in our April 26 session: “A time when I saw people really work together to make progress on something actually happened really recently. Last Thursday, I was invited to speak on a panel at a conference put on by the EDPA they do economic themes and the topic was how to retain Gen Z and millennials in the state of Alabama, because we’re losing them. And all my friends are gone, I’m like the last one left of my friends. And just to see how many people came from all over the state of Alabama to hear four Gen Z/millennial people talk about the things we care about, which is the culture has to change here and it’s not just about money and pay, it’s about being in an environment where you feel appreciated and you feel like you’re not isolated and alone in the way that you think.”

“And to have some of the leaders, some of our mayors and people in chambers of commerce be there and actually want to ask us questions and actually be involved in the conversation, was really uplifting because it really gives me hope that these people will start being invested in this, whether it’s authentically invested or invested to try to retain economic development, I don’t know, but at least the conversation has been started and programs in Alabama are trying to continue those conversations.”

And from Jake, also in our April 26 session:

“And I think that if you connected on college campuses, like-minded people, we might see a reverse of the brain drain that is really hurting Alabama’s economic future because as millennials and Gen Z’s leave, that’s just going to leave behind Gen X and boomers. And no offense to those people, but eventually they’re going to retire out the workforce and who’s going to be left? So we need to connect on college campuses to retain talent.”

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Brain drain, for those of you who haven’t heard that term, is when large numbers of well-educated and highly skilled individuals leave a country, a state, or a business in favor of better opportunities. This type of outmigration has traditionally been fueled by money and opportunity.

The United States has a long and successful history of enticing people and their families to the country. Many come to give their children better opportunities and make more money, while others, especially during times of war and political instability, come to find personal freedoms and escape political and religious persecution.

At the state level, brain drain is a bit more complicated.

Alabama’s population is growing very slowly, but it’s failing to keep its smartest and best people. Over the last 50 years, Alabama has ranked among the worst states at keeping high caliber graduates and its highly skilled adult population, according to a report from Congress’s Joint Economic Committee. It shows that most states in the Rust Belt, Southeast and Plains regions are losing their educated residents to coastal states, as well as to Texas and Illinois.

Those people typically leave to be closer to their industry hubs, where there is more opportunity and economic mobility.

For example, students at the University of Alabama that graduate with a degree in computer sciences might see the tech-heavy west coast as a better place to get a start. Those with finance-related degrees may have their sights set on New York or Charlotte, North Carolina – two of the largest finance centers in the country.

A Nov. 2021 survey conducted by the Alabama Commission on Higher Education (ACHE) found that about a third of 8,000 students surveyed said they planned to stay in Alabama after graduation. Around 23% said they would leave, while 43% said they weren’t yet sure.

The report shows that there is an increasing divergence between places that can attract, retain and cluster highly educated and skilled workers and places that can’t. This phenomenon is wrapped into what’s known as the knowledge economy, where intellectual capital stands in contrast to manual labor economies – like farming and mass production factories – where most workers are relatively unskilled.

But to be clear, Alabama has done a great job of keeping unemployment low and bringing in large scale industries to the state – like car manufacturing. But those successes are largely due to the state being low wage and low regulation. A decade old report warned that the state was creating the wrong kinds of jobs in its recovery from the 2008/2009 financial downturn – focusing too much on those with low levels of education and skills.

While money and opportunity has historically been the driving force for brain drain among states, things are changing.

The ACHE study highlighted results that go beyond just money and opportunity. Reasons for staying in Alabama included its beautiful natural environment and its healthy/outdoor activities, according to the study, but reasons for leaving show that ideological divisions are becoming more and more important for young and socially conscious graduates.

Those include issues around accepting people from diverse backgrounds, social awareness and the political environment. Better pay outside of Alabama also rated highly as a reason why people are leaving. The state has one of the lowest average salaries in the country.

So where does that leave a state that is increasingly leaning to the right – passing anti-LGBTQ legislation and extreme anti-abortion laws?

Well, it’s not likely to bode well for Alabama. Repeated studies have shown that well-educated individuals are more likely to be liberal and progressive and reject policies that are seen as harmful. And since 1994, that political polarization has increased significantly throughout the country.

And in Alabama, that’s unlikely to change. Aside from Democrat Doug Jones’ narrow U.S. Senate win against Roy Moore, who was accused of sexually assaulting multiple women ranging from 14 to 22 years-old, Alabama is about as red as they come.

ACHE is working on the issue and was recently awarded $800,000 as part of its Retain Alabama program. However, it’s yet to be seen how increasing political polarization will play into statewide brain drain and the knowledge economy. ACHE says it will focus its resources on trying to convince the undecided 43% on staying in the state.

But the ACHE doesn’t see a change in the political landscape as the primary issue to help retain the state’s brightest and best. In its conclusions and recommendations, ACHE said it needed to develop an outreach program that makes it easier to connect students with high quality jobs. While the report acknowledged the state’s issues with how it’s socially and politically perceived, it didn’t say how to fix them.

Christopher Harress

Christopher Harress | charress@reckonmedia.com

Born in Scotland and currently living in Mobile, Alabama.

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