The Brain Drain Conundrum

One of the biggest complaints/criticisms/concerns that seems the plague a town like Mansfield is the dreaded problem of “brain drain.” If you’ve never heard of this I can only imagine that you aren’t living in a Rust Belt city, because here it’s as frequent a topic of conversation as the opioid epidemic or college football. Basically, the idea is that one of our biggest exports is educated people.

Take Ohio for example. We rank near the top of the colleges per capita and colleges per square mile lists, yet our residents rank 37th out of 50 in higher educational attainment. That means we educate people here, but they don’t stay. While everyone agrees that this is a problem, we certainly haven’t arrived at a solution.

Is it the chicken or the egg?

Freshly minted college grads certainly want to walk into good jobs upon graduation, and it seems that people are having trouble finding those here. Thus the graduates go where the jobs are, right? Except employers claim that they can’t seem to find the educated talent that they need. So where is the disconnect? It’s hard to say, but I have a hunch, and my guess is that it’s neither.

I think it’s more of a soul drain. People aren’t going where the jobs are, they’re going where the hope is. Certainly, good fortune is found in New York, LA, or Silicon Valley. People, especially young people, want to be where the action is, and most of the stories in their news feeds say it’s not here.

A while back Richard Florida had a profound impact on American notions of urbanism with his idea of the “creative class;” this group of knowledge workers who were looking for more than just jobs, but communities and lifestyle. At the time I agreed with him, yes, the appeal of these cities is their “cool” factor. All the great culture, and diversity, and fun. Turns out cool isn’t enough. He has since backpedaled on that idea quite a bit, realizing the creative class cities he lauded as great examples are fraught with problems of massive income inequality and gentrification at scale.

Deep down it’s personal

I grew up in a small town and never particularly liked the smallness. I certainly didn’t have plans to come back after college, or ever really. As best I could tell only hopeless losers stayed behind. In fact the older I got the more perplexed I was by my own parent’s decision to stay. My father would have been paid better and experienced greater career opportunities nearly anywhere else. Still, I also knew that my parents weren’t losers, they just wanted to be close to family.

While life is full of ups and downs, failures big and small; I experienced my divorce as my greatest failure in life. That failure was further intensified and amplified by a rather abrupt relocation to my hometown. Given that my career at the time was in an art museum, the job front was pretty abysmal given that part-time volunteer at a popcorn museum was somehow the closest thing to a job in my field, and when it isn’t paid I’m reticent to call it a job. It was pretty hard not to experience this as the time in my life when I became a loser.

Then I chose to stay

In time I worked a series of mostly dreadful low-paying jobs, but I also happened to get myself mixed up with this Graziani guy, and we got married. Before you jump to romanticizing it and say that I’m here because of love’s magic or some such nonsense, I have to admit that I don’t really buy into that fantasy. There isn’t a mystical magnetic force that brought me here, it was a choice. If there is anything I know for sure about love, it’s a choice. I didn’t mean to choose Mansfield, but in the end, it was a part of the deal.

As I struggled to find, and keep meaningful work, and more importantly, health insurance, it was hard to see the upside of being here. My own limiting beliefs told me that being in a place like this made me a loser, and then the lack of professional opportunities meant working jobs that further confirmed that notion. It was an ugly and depressing self-fulfilling prophecy.

Except I’m not a loser

After a brief stint in the only job in town that was actually in my field I found myself unemployed…again. Something I had not really experienced prior to moving to Ohio. At some point in the depths of a particularly ugly bout of depression, a job opportunity came along. Even more perfect–it was in Athens, GA. While no community is perfect, this one had so many of things I missed from my former life, and the job was perfect.

There was a hiccup though, a big one. We weren’t able to arrive at custody arrangement that allowed for adequate family time. The choice became one between the career and lifestyle that I wanted, or a close relationship with our kids, and between our kids. I picked the kids, as no doubt my parents must have all those years ago.

Lucky for me the job offer came along because it gave me two things–confidence and clarity. I was reminded that I wasn’t a loser, that my skills and contributions do have value, and that I was actually wanted. More importantly, when posed with my own little “Judgement of Soloman” situation I didn’t cut the baby in half. Suddenly I knew what my real priorities are.

Turns out I’m not alone

In my mind, this was the moment I chose Mansfield. It was the next logical and necessary step. If I was staying here, by god I wasn’t going to be miserable. I had to find a way to love this place, and so I chose to. So I sought out experiences I would enjoy, and people who did love it here. Guess what, they weren’t losers either. Some people moved away and came back, some came here for work (because there are some good jobs here too), and some have always lived here. While lots of bright people have moved away, that doesn’t mean the people who remain are somehow lacking.

All that said, the hard reality was this–the opportunities that I was looking for weren’t here. Assuming that meant a life of menial eight dollars an hour work was a limiting belief though. The reality is that at any given moment we can choose to make our own luck, and that is what I ultimately chose to do. When the job isn’t there, sometimes you have to create it for yourself. No offense politicians, but ANY of us can be “job creators.”

Entrepreneurship is the most likely answer

While I won’t dispute the circumstances that are the basis for our concept of brain drain, I’m now less convinced that we are trapped in a loop of loss. I don’t think this is about who stays or leaves, in all honesty, we’re probably better off if the negative people take their bad mojo somewhere else. I also believe that this notion that “all the good ones” are gone is lazy and unimaginative. There are lots of bright and capable people right here, right now. We don’t have to be “cooler” or edgier to attract and retain people. We need to nurture and encourage the people we have.

What we need is hope and belonging. It’s an attitude, an ethos, a culture shift. Absolutely nothing about this place changed when I grew to love it, the only thing that changed was me and my attitude. I decided that if I could make it here, I could make it anywhere. I decided I wasn’t stuck, but rather that I was the author of my own story. I often wonder if I ever would have started my own business someplace else. I don’t know if I would have, and so I am grateful to be here because Mansfield has made me a better version of myself. I do know that some magical mythical manufacturer isn’t likely to swoop in and save us. All the good that our future holds will come from within our community.

We need to dream big dreams for each other

One of the limitations of growing up in a small town comes down to lack of exposure. Growing up there was a whole world outside of mine I knew nothing about, and while that is one of the things people seem to like about small towns, I still believe that can be problematic. In my early adult life, I inserted my foot directly in my mouth more times than I can count simply due to blind ignorance.

More limiting though, my small world meant that I had very small dreams for myself. Plenty of women my age have a very different story, but I never considered much in the way of a career other than teaching, nursing, or secretarial work. While I have the utmost respect for women in all of those professions, and I by no means am devaluing that work, the world has so much more to offer bright young women. There are more than three possible career paths.

As luck would have it, more than once someone came into my life with bigger dreams for me than I could have imagined on my own, and I’m very grateful for that. When I look at this brain drain crisis I can’t help thinking this is part of the answer. People don’t have to leave for something better outside of here, the something better is already inside of them and those of us with the vision to see it need to nudge and inspire those who don’t.

Maybe it’s time we stop calling it brain drain

The phrase itself is counter-productive. The assumption that all the smart people are leaving devalues everyone else. While educational attainment is a number that is useful, it certainly isn’t the only measure of intelligence. Let’s not forget the formal post-secondary education is costly, and for a multiplicity of reasons more common in middle and upper-class communities. Many people in my own community might not have had exposure or opportunity to explore higher education, but are no doubt just as intelligent, or more so, than those who do. Some of the smartest people I’ve known don’t have college degrees, and honestly, not everyone needs one.

I’ve been on both sides of this. I left for the big city and I had access to opportunities and experiences I simply couldn’t have had in a small town. I’ve also found a way to pick up the pieces and build a life from nothing in a place with far less obvious assets and opportunities. The latter was absolutely easier and had much greater and more instantaneous rewards, at least financially. Yet the former is far more meaningful to me. The adversity that comes with limitations inspires creativity, requires perseverance, and develops a fortitude that I’m certain can’t be found outside oneself.

This phenomenon that people call brain drain is really about people going where the opportunities appear to be, seeking ready-made careers, community, and cool factor. There are still days when all of that appeals to me, especially on the hard days. This isn’t a drain, it’s a choice and a perfectly legitimate one. Still, we need to drop the stigma we’ve attached to it. When we call it brain drain we demonize those who leave and insult those who stay. And for the rare ones who move into these communities they’re left questioning that choice.

Growing with grit

So let’s think about this another way. When we focus on what we have, rather than what we don’t, it’s called optimism. We can go beyond that though. Various disciplines already have constructs for how we might look at this. In community development, its referred to as Asset Based Community Development.  In economic development, it is the Economic Gardening Model. In business there is the Lean Startup Model; and various disciplines are applying Human Centered Design, also known as Design Thinking, to solve community challenges from within those communities. Of course, the arts often succeed where data turns dry, so I can’t help thinking that maybe the Wizard of Oz sums it up best,

“Everything you were looking for was right there with you all along.”
― The Wizard of Oz

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