Brain Drain: Why Talented Professionals are Leaving Rural America

U.S Census population migration patterns

Why Talented Professionals are Leaving Rural America

Rural America has been losing its best and brightest for years. Graduates of four-year colleges are moving from small-town America to bigger cities, oftentimes to pursue better employment opportunities in their career fields.  While graduates leave for various reasons, including less than competitive wages, fewer opportunities in their field, social and legal reform, and limited quality of life amenities, research shows the biggest reason is for better economic opportunities.  A Psychology Today article, “The End of Rural Communities: Why Young People Leave,” found that young Americans leave rural areas due to unemployment and economic stagnation. However, universities and colleges can play a bigger role in retaining talented students in rural communities.

Population Loss Furthers Economic Stagnation

Rural America has experienced a declining population for years for various reasons, including quality of life and lack of career opportunities. More than fifteen million plus people leave for the bright lights of the big city, their exodus further erodes the economic base of rural communities. As you can see from the 2020 U.S. Census Map above, net positive migration rates (highlighted in shades of blue) show in-migration roughly correlates with new job creation as highlighted in the shades of green in the map above.  The net migration rate is the difference between the number of immigrants (people coming into an area) and the number of emigrants (people leaving an area) divided by the population.

The Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond found that the loss of population in rural communities leads to a domino effect of a shrinking workforce, an aging population, and a diminishing tax base. Between 2010 and 2020, the U.S. Census shows urban population increased by 6.4%.

However, leaving for better jobs is only half of the story. The Census reported nearly half of all movers in 2021 cited housing-related reasons for moving, which were also the most prevalent reasons given for moves from 2017 to 2021. The next most prevalent reasons for moving were family-related reasons, job-related and, lastly other reasons.

U.S Census Job Creation Rate

When you examine states with high rates of persistent poverty, such as Mississippi and Louisiana, you’ll find high out-migration of population. In the New Job Creation map above, Mississippi, Louisiana, Oklahoma, Arkansas, and Alabama have lower new job creation rates as compared to neighboring states. Texas shows a 1.7 to 3.4 percent job creation rate, while North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia and Florida have job creation rates of 3.4 and higher.  Consequently, more prosperous states bordering less prosperous states represent direct competitors for skilled workforce. The net migration map appears to support this theory. You’ll notice high in-migration to states bordering less prosperous neighbors.  

MS University Top Majors Breakdown

Higher Education Can Play a Role in Retaining Workforce

The State of Mississippi and rural America produce many graduates. However, these students face a major issue – finding a job after graduation. When degrees do not align with in-demand jobs, graduates have to choose between leaving their hometowns to find work in their fields or seeking employment outside their career field of choice. 

The table above shows the most popular degree awarded at three of Mississippi’s largest universities: University of Southern Mississippi, University of Mississippi, and Mississippi State University. Many of these students hold degrees in business and or medical fields like nursing. However, many rural states like Mississippi lack job opportunities for students with degrees in Digital Communication, General Psychology, Biology, and Kinesiology. These students will most likely have to venture to other states with more opportunities. Though, some majors like Mechanical Engineering, Nursing, and Elementary Education do have opportunities in rural areas, employment in these fields may not absorb all the new graduates. 

In reality, many of these students will most likely not be able to find opportunities that are related to their degree in rural America. The USDA Economic Research Service states rural businesses and industries often specialize in resource-based activities such as agriculture, forestry, mining, or natural amenity-based recreation. Many of these careers in resource-based activities require blue collar skills. Consequently, universities and colleges are not graduating students with degrees for local in-demand jobs with positive long range outlooks. 

Narrowing the Skills Gap

A skills gap arises when the skills prevalent in the local workforce do not match the skills needed for the demand jobs.  As such, students graduating with degrees with little prospects for local employment will need to relocate for employment. Essentially, rural America like Mississippi is educating tens of thousands of workforce-ready graduates for employment in nearby urban areas.

To retain our best and brightest, rural states need to recruit or grow more diverse industries or move students into fields of study that align with in-demand jobs. This sounds simple in theory but it’s vastly complicated in practice.  In focus groups with high school and college students, young people seldom understand what in-demand jobs are available in their local area. There are many disconnects within the workforce ecosystem between educators, students and their families, workforce and economic development professionals and employers.   

Many schools primarily focus on recruitment and degree completion and seldom consider the retention rate of their graduates in their community. Universities are a powerful and major entity in communities across the nation. Universities across rural America should work hand in hand with their state leaders to reduce the brain drain for the community’s betterment.

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