Lessening Brain Drain

Oklahoma strives to keep young professionals in the state.

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Brain drain. No, it’s not a zombie reference. Brain drain is the incalculable economic loss sustained every time a young, educated Oklahoman leaves the state for opportunities elsewhere, taking their future earning potential with them.

State business leaders prioritize keeping young people here, and there is evidence that these proactive measures are effective, says Zack Stoycoff, communications manager at the Tulsa Regional Chamber. Bloomberg Businessweek’s “Best Cities for New College Grads” list recently placed Tulsa at No. 13 and Oklahoma City at No. 14 in the nation for providing numerous entry-level career opportunities with good pay and a low cost of living.

“Oklahoma is a beautiful, culturally rich state, and both of its largest cities have made concerted efforts in recent years to develop urban centers that attract young professionals,” Stoycoff says. “Both Tulsa and Oklahoma City are centers of culture, nightlife and quality of life with thriving economies. The latter gives them an advantage over many competing cities, which have reputations as youth-friendly destinations but don’t necessarily have jobs for their new young residents. In Tulsa, we have one of the lowest unemployment rates in Oklahoma and the nation at 4.2 percent – below the state average.
“We have the nation’s second-lowest commute time, a cost of living that is 12 percent below the national average and a quality of life recognized by publications like Forbes magazine,” he continues. “Meanwhile, our downtown districts are continually surprising visitors, who inevitably say something like, ‘We had no idea this was here.’ We have built a city in which people – young people – want to live. Our mission as a chamber now is to spread the word.”

For almost a decade, the Greater Oklahoma City Chamber of Commerce has devoted an entire departmental division to recruiting and retaining recent and soon-to-be college graduates, says Drew Dugan, vice president of education and workforce development for the Oklahoma City chamber.

“It is more common these days for chambers to engage in education issues,” says Dugan. “We work with legislative task forces and often partner with the Tulsa chamber to get things done.”

The Oklahoma City chamber promotes its Greater Grads program, geared to create internships. The program has generated 435 positions so far in 2014. The chamber also hosts a job fair open exclusively to Oklahoma employers.

Dugan says both Oklahoma City and Tulsa need engineers for the oil and gas and aviation industries. To that end, a state tax credit benefiting both employer and employee helps lure new engineers to the state, resulting in economic benefits that such highly paid jobs bring to the state’s economy.
In 2005, the Tulsa Regional Chamber created Tulsa’s Young Professionals (TYPros) to promote and develop Tulsa as an attractive place for young professionals.

“With more than 7,000 members and 80 events a year all dedicated to getting young people involved in their city through networking, professional development, legislative advocacy, health initiatives, art and culture advocacy, TYPros is considered one of the largest and most successful young professional organizations in the country – so much so that its leaders are contacted almost weekly by cities across the country looking to mimic the effort in their communities,” says Stoycoff. “Today, its volunteers give more than 3,000 service hours annually to advance the organization’s mission of attracting and retaining young talent while establishing Tulsa’s next generation of leaders.”

Stoycoff says young people place an enormous priority on where they live and what there is to do in their city.

“One thing we see today is that young people tend to choose cities before choosing jobs. They look for cities with thriving urban cores, arts and culture and quality of life amenities that fit their lifestyles, and then they try to find a job,” Stoycoff says. “To compete for young, talented workers in the 21st century, cities and regions must concentrate on creating places (where) young people want to live.

“Today, the Tulsa region is experiencing a resurgence. The population is growing and becoming more diverse, unemployment remains low and we are developing community assets with new attractions, restaurants, downtown nightlife, housing options, green spaces and more – all of which make our region more attractive to Millennials,” Stoycoff says.