Midwest vies to keep its eggheads home

A chorus is welling up in state capitols and mayors' offices around the Midwest and beyond: "Stop the brain drain!"

For years, the Midwest, Northeast, and other regions have watched their best and brightest - often the young college graduates - strike out for high-paying jobs in the Sun Belt. In Iowa, it's so bad that 59 percent of grads from public colleges get their first job out of state.

But now, officials are getting creative - even downright feisty - in their fight to retain homegrown "brain power." The new intensity stems from a growing recognition that, in this information economy, bright people with bright ideas are just the sort of workers a region needs to thrive.

"The higher the education level of everyone around you, the more productive you are - and the more productive everyone else is," says economist Paul Gottlieb at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. "This thing can cycle up quite high."

It's a point not lost on political leaders in the swath of the US that is laboring to keep up, where the drive to keep engineers, computer designers, and other "knowledge workers" is taking some unusual turns.

*In Iowa, Gov. Tom Vilsack (D) has a new plan to reverse "brain drain" - and create some "brain gain." He wants to give special tax breaks to engineers, teachers, and other high-priority professionals as an enticement to stay.

If this plan plays favorites, the governor's office hints that desperate times call for desperate measures. "It's difficult when other states continually come to Iowa and steal our best and brightest," says Joe Shannahan, the governor's spokesman. He cites Texas, which has recruited teachers in Iowa, as a prime offender.

He acknowledges, however, that Governor Vilsack is guilty of out-of-state recruitment, too. The governor has taken trips to California and New York, talking to native Iowans about the joys of coming home.

*In Pennsylvania, famous residents Fred Rogers and Joe Paterno are new pitchmen for Republican Gov. Tom Ridge's latest effort to woo natives back.

He's also got a new program that gives $3,000 a year to any of the state's high-school grads who want to attend a Pennsylvania college. But there's a catch: After graduation, recipients must stay in the state one year for every $3,000 they took - or repay the money.

*Louisiana, smack in the middle of the ever-popular Sun Belt, may attach similar strings to its popular scholarship program, which funds full college tuition at any state public college. Last year, 25,000 students took part. But officials worry the students are getting a free ride - and then skipping town.

Evidence is mounting that a city or state must have a strong educational foundation to succeed in today's idea-driven economy.

A recent report by Case Western's Dr. Gottlieb found a link between cities' "brain power" (measured by the percentage of college graduates in the population) and their income growth. Looking at America's 75 biggest cities, he found that the 10 with the highest share of college graduates in 1980 - including Denver, San Francisco, Seattle, and Austin, Texas - saw per-capita income growth of 1.8 percent per year from 1980 to 1997. The 10 cities with the smallest percentage of college grads in 1980 - including Toledo, Ohio, Jacksonville, Fla., and Mobile, Ala. - had annual income growth of 0.8 percent. It hints at a growing gap between cities with big "brain trusts" and those without.

But there's still hope for the traditional losers in this battle.

There's Pittsburgh, which techies are now calling "Roboburgh" because of its growing group of robotics firms.

Allentown, Pa. - the former Big Steel capital made famous by Billy Joel's ballad - is home to a major Lucent Technologies operation and a bevy of other high-tech companies.

And Iowa had three cities among the top 50 fastest-growing high-tech centers between 1990 and 1998, according to a report by the Milken Institute in Santa Monica, Calif.

Fairfield, Iowa - the self-proclaimed "Silicorn Valley" - is one quiet success story. It's home to a town square, a community theater that's famous for miles around, and about 50 software companies.

California may have sun, fun, and beaches, but it's also got traffic, smog, and high prices. That's where many in Fairfield - and across the Midwest - think they have an advantage.

Burt Chojnowski, CEO of a Fairfield Internet start-up called CoolCall, moved from Silicon Valley several years ago. He bought a big Victorian house "that makes you feel like you're living in a bed-and-breakfast," he says. "I commute 10 minutes to work, and I'm going to pay off my house in five years."

And his business, which will provide cheap international phone calls via the Internet, hasn't suffered. It just got $3.3 million in funding, mostly from California investors. Some potential funders wouldn't see him because of his zip code.

"But others saw that we could rent cheap office space, pay our people less, and focus on the product." In the end, he says, their location turned out to be a bonus.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.