'Iowa, come home!' One state fights its brain drain
CHICAGO AND DES MOINES, IOWA
Mishell Meyer grew up in Okoboji, Iowa - a tiny town on the shores of the "Iowa Great Lakes," home to "The Clothes Peddler," "Bud's Pub," and just 820 year-round residents.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
Now she's a fast-paced sales consultant who divides her time between New York and Chicago. She lives on the shores of the real Great Lakes, in a city of nearly 3 million, with Prada and Gucci up the street. Ms. Meyer harbors fond memories of Iowa, but she doesn't want to live there.
Nonetheless, tonight she's here with 600 other former Iowans grazing on shrimp and roast-beef sandwiches at a Chicago reception hosted by Iowa's governor, Tom Vilsack. In addition to running the state these days, the governor has become a part-time carnival barker, pitch ing virtues of the Hawkeye State to expatriates like Meyer in hopes that they'll return.
She's not buying it. "Tell him to get Ann Taylor!" she laughs. "I love the values we got, but it's just too small."
The "brain drain" - a rapid exodus of educated young adults like Meyer - has been a concern for Middle America states for some time now. From 1995 to 2000, nearly 30,000 people between the ages of 25 and 34 left Iowa, according to the US Census. Nebraska, North Dakota, and other nearby states have faced similar losses.
The Chicago reception is the sixth Vilsack has hosted - the second in Chicago - in five years. In addition to touting short commutes, high-quality schools, and burgeoning culture, he directs people to a website (SmartCareerMove.com) that extols Iowa's quality of life and lists jobs.
But it's a tough sell. To date, Vilsack can point to only about 1,000 people who've returned because of the recruitment efforts. In North Dakota, a voter initiative that would have offered young residents an income-tax credit and forgiven portions of their student loans - so long as they stayed - failed last November.
And so Vilsack is broadening his efforts. The receptions and the website will continue, but his current focus is on a more immediate problem: jobs.
"We're realizing that the manufacturing section of our economy is rapidly changing," he says, sitting at a long wooden conference table in his office at the State Capitol in Des Moines. "That makes it hard for the ordinary person to understand why population is important.... It's all about jobs. The number of jobs and the quality of jobs."
He has a vision of Iowa as a center for a new bioeconomy - using its ubiquitous corn and beans to create everything from T-shirts to fuel. He's trying to retain all the traditional manufacturing jobs as he can.
But most important for the short term, Vilsack says - and the effort he hopes will stem population loss as well - is putting Iowa on the map as a producer of "services," from financial to legal to marketing.
Wells Fargo bank, he notes proudly, just announced that it will build a large new office complex, creating several thousand new jobs around Des Moines. And he frequently touts the unexpected Fast Company designation this month of Des Moines as the "hippest city in the USA."