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reWorking Michigan: Creative class still important to regional growth

Chad Badgero, Peppermint Creek Theatre Photo by Jason Vlahos, WKAR
Chad Badgero, Peppermint Creek Theatre Photo by Jason Vlahos, WKAR

By Rob South, WKAR News


EAST LANSING, MI – http://wkar.org/images/library/programs/REWMI-120.jpg
A report to be released Tuesday will look at how successful the region has been in stemming the so-called brain drain. Mid-Michigan has been losing young, educated people to places like Chicago, Austin, Texas, and Madison, Wisconsin for the better part of a decade. Keeping young professionals here has been a major focus of many economic development plans. | SKIP down to article

Why they matter

It is no accident that many of the region's political and economic leaders have been working hard to make mid-Michigan an attractive place for college-educated people in their 20s and 30s. Millennials, as they are often called, are considered an important indicator of a region's economy. And mid-Michigan has been losing them in droves.

Lou Glazer is the president of Michigan Future Incorporated, a non-profit think tank devoted to studying the state's changing economy. He says more needs to be done to make sure this demographic stays in the state.

"What makes them important is that they are by far the most mobile group in our society," he says. "So, metro Lansing kids who go to Chicago, they raise their kids in the Chicago suburbs, that's why they matter."

Glazer says the more young professionals who leave, the harder it will be to transform the economy from manufacturing to a knowledge-based economy. He says right now Michigan ranks 36th when it comes to the percentage of adults with a college degree.

"That's our fundamental problem," Glazer says. "It's not taxes or economic development programs. By far the single best predictor of income for both regions and states is the percentage of adults with a four-year degree."

A brighter future

But there are signs that things are turning around. Even as manufacturing jobs are harder to come by, Michigan's unemployment rate is dropping and the number of creative economy jobs has been steadily increasing.

That doesn't mean that the brain drain has stopped. Glazer says jobs alone isn't enough to keep the millennials around. He says they tend to decide where to live before they look for work and any community wanting to keep them around has to make itself as attractive as possible. Glazer says communities need to create a "sense of place" where young people want to live.

"They want central cities," he says, "mixed use, high density, they don't want a car, they want transit, the arts and all the rest of that stuff."

That's no surprise to any of the thousands of people who attended the East Lansing Art Festival this weekend. It's the kind of event that most planners believe creates that sense of place and helps convince local college graduates to stay. And it's one of many reasons MSU grad Tremaine Phillips stays.

Phillips says he got a good job right out of college and started to discover what the region has to offer. He says the work environment is eclectic and he likes being close to the state capital, MSU and other high-tech industries. He also says he's made a lot of friends here and could see himself raising his family in the region.

And that's what a lot of young professionals who've stuck around say as well. Phillips understands that more young people like him have to want to make the community their home before the economy can make a serious recovery. And he says he says he likes that he can help make that happen.

He says the closeness of the community lets him get involved with groups that can facilitate the kind of change he thinks is important.

More needs to be done

Efforts from Phillips and some local leaders have had some impact. But Lou Glazer says there's still a reluctance to truly invest in the region so that it retains more young people like Phillips.

"Ultimately, political and business leadership need to understand that retaining and attracting talent is probably the most important thing to the future of the region's economy," he says. "At the moment they don't."

Capitol Area Michigan Works is releasing a report Tuesday on whether young, college-educated adults are staying or if they continue to look for better futures somewhere else.

reWorking Michigan
For more on job creation and workforce evolution in Michigan, visit WKAR.org/reworkingmichigan

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