Economy

Pitch from hometowns to skilled workers: Come home

A shift in thought

Recruiters in areas with a dearth of professionals, including Maine, are successfully targeting talent that has local roots, but left for school and careers.

Chris Schroeder applies an acrylic adhesive while assembling a pipette rack at IBI Scientific, a lab-equipment manufacturer in Peosta, Iowa. Skilled workers often in short supply in the current economy, including in states like Iowa where educated residents often leave for school or career opportunities in big cities. Some locales are trying to lure more of those people back.
Jessica Reilly/Telegraph Herald/AP
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Alana Greer was sure she’d never return to Miami.

“I was very anti-moving home for a really long time,” says the civil rights attorney, who graduated from Harvard Law School and worked in San Francisco and Washington, D.C., before resettling near her childhood home in Coral Gables. “But I can’t imagine myself anywhere else right now.”

Ms. Greer is co-founder of the Community Justice Project, a nonprofit law firm that works with grassroots groups on racial justice issues. She says she can bring local knowledge to her work – and build something new – in a way that wouldn’t be very easy elsewhere. 

Miami isn’t a “small” city by any stretch, but its footprint in industries that define more globally renowned metros – media, tech, finance – leaves a lot of room for growth. That growth can be helped by people like Greer, namely, top-flight young workers who leave to go to school and establish careers, then come home.

It’s a trajectory that businesses in areas of the country with a dearth of young talent, from Maine to Detroit, are working to cultivate. For companies, a workforce made up of returned locals has advantages: They bring skills and experience that they may not have had access to had they stayed, but having friends and family nearby makes them more likely to stick around. “It’s less risky to bring somebody back than someone with no ties,” says Ed McKersie, a recruiter in Maine and the founder and president of ProSearch, a staffing firm based in Portland. “They certainly know what they’re getting themselves into.”

In a national context, too, recruiting people with local roots could act as a counterweight to increased economic segregation of talent and education into a few, hyper-privileged locales – a trend that many have argued is increasing the country’s social inequality.

“What many communities need most is not just financial support, but talent and energy,” the author J.D. Vance, who relocated from Silicon Valley back to his home state of Ohio this year, wrote in a New York Time op-ed in March. 

'Live and work in Maine'

Mr. McKersie has grappled for years with the challenge of luring prospects to Maine. The state nicknamed “Vacationland” swells with millions of tourists during the summer months, but its year-round population is small and, on average, the oldest in the nation. A super-low unemployment rate (3.5 percent in 2016) hints at an acute need for working-age talent.

“I think the biggest challenge is perception,” he says. “In our efforts to market it as a great place to unwind, people got the message that there isn’t a lot going on. There are world-class companies here, a lot of employers who are having difficulty recruiting locally because the pool is relatively small. As the economy grows we have to recruit outside the state.”

In 2015, McKersie launched Live and Work in Maine, a program that gets funding from the state government. He uses social media and leverages relationships with the state’s universities to identify far-flung candidates with local ties. It’s a promising strategy, he says, because those recruits “certainly know what they’re getting themselves into,” including the region’s notoriously harsh winters.

Those didn’t deter Nic Gallant, who moved back to Maine with his wife this past January. “I wouldn’t recommend it,” he laughs.

Mr. Gallant grew up in Mapleton, a rural town in the northern part of the state. He left after college and built up his career in D.C., Chicago, and California before being recruited by McKersie’s firm to work as a sales training manager at Certify, a Portland-based software company.

“What they were looking for and my background were sort of a perfect match,” he says. “I had gone out and built this experience elsewhere, and they wanted someone with that experience who was also willing to move back to Maine.”

The Gallant family recently bought a house near Portland, something that was out of their reach in San Francisco or D.C. Being home, Gallant says, has been “a breath of fresh air. Both of our families live in Maine, and it’s an opportunity to spend more time with those who we are closest with.”

Because of Portland’s small size, about 67,000 people, “You really get a chance to know faces and get engrained in the community,” Gallant says. “In bigger cities the faces kind of blend together.” 

Countering social segregation

Getting people to follow Gallant’s lead is a high priority for cities and states across the US. In addition to its recruiting efforts, Maine offers student loan reimbursement for graduates of the state’s university system who elect to live and work in the state. Lawmakers in Connecticut have proposed a similar program. Rust belt cities like Detroit and Cleveland hold events to showcase work opportunities to successful transplants who might come back for the right job. The 43North competition offers generous grants to tech startups – as long as they are willing to relocate to Buffalo, N.Y.

They’re efforts to rebalance a lopsided talent distribution. Migration patterns show that people with college degrees are far more likely to move across state lines than their less-educated counterparts. That’s long had the effect of draining talent from rural areas into cities, but it’s starting to affect certain regions of the country as well, particularly the Midwest and parts of the Northeast. 

Many, including Mr. Vance, argue that this increases economic segregation and even political polarization. “The brain drain also encourages a uniquely modern form of cultural detachment. Eventually, the young people who’ve moved out marry – typically to partners with similar economic prospects,” he writes. “They raise children in increasingly segregated neighborhoods, giving rise to something the conservative scholar Charles Murray calls ‘super ZIPs.’... There have always been regional and class inequalities in our society, but the data tells us that we’re living through a unique period of segregation.”

Mr. Vance stops short in his writing, and his actions, of advocating that successful people compromise their futures by moving back to save their hometowns for the sake of it. He relocated his family to Columbus, a thriving college town, not a desperate part of the Rust Belt. Still, he pinpoints the selling point that people like McKersie, in Maine, are trying to leverage: “Part of me loves Ohio simply because it’s home.”

Greer, in Miami, says that level of comfort has allowed her to throw herself into her social justice work more fully than she could elsewhere. “Having no winter is a very big deal,” she laughs. “But also being around family, friends who understand me on a different level and who challenge me. I’m bringing my full self to the work, not just my work self, and that’s a very important part of growing my career.”