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Issue of the Week: Wisconsin’s Brain Drain—Why?

Feb. 19, 2014
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Morris Davis
At the Governor’s Conference on Economic Development, speaker Morris Davis pointed out that Wisconsin has a serious problem in that we are losing our college-educated population, whereas our neighboring states like Illinois and Minnesota are gaining college graduates. More college graduates means more jobs because companies move to states where they know they can hire an educated workforce and college graduates are more apt to create companies with the jobs of the future. So what was Professor Davis’ answer to this problem? One suggestion he made is to provide discounted tuition to college students who commit to staying in Wisconsin after graduation. That is a reasonable idea worth considering, but it does not address the real issue, which the professor clearly stated when he said, “We need a place where they’re going to want to live.” 

Study after study shows that this generation of college graduates, compared to earlier generations, is less likely to choose a job and move to a new location and is more interested in choosing the place where they want to live and then finding a job or creating their own job in that area. The big problem right now is that Wisconsin has lost its reputation as an enlightened state where these young college graduates are going to want to live as it keeps choosing to be on the wrong side of history. We see these same struggles in other parts of the world, including Ukraine. The western half of Ukraine wants to align with the enlightened, forward-thinking Europe. This half has the majority of the educated population who are looking to the future, while the eastern half wants to return to the days of backward policies and prejudices by aligning with the corrupt Russian authoritarians.

America’s young professionals are no different. They are seeking forward-looking communities and states in which to sink deep roots by buying homes, building families and establishing their own businesses. They choose states and communities where there are high levels of the amenities they desire. They want a major commitment to education, not a state that views teachers as the enemy. They want to live in a clean environment, not one where the government allows corporations, who are good campaign contributors, to have open season on our wonderful environment. They want honest and open government, not one where the legislators need to have a police escort to leave the Capitol after voting to move the state backward. They want a forward-looking government that does not have a ban on same-sex marriages, that doesn’t do everything it can to restrict a woman’s reproductive choices, that doesn’t try to impose as many restrictions as it can to prevent people from voting, that doesn’t oppose a livable wage so the poor can’t reach the first rung of the ladder of upward mobility, and a state that embraces efforts to provide affordable health care. Unfortunately Wisconsin currently fails on all counts. It is also no surprise that our more forward-looking neighbors like Illinois and Minnesota seem to be winning on all these counts. So it is furthermore no surprise that Wisconsin is suffering a brain drain and failing to create jobs at a rate even close to some of our neighboring states or the progressive states like California, New York and Massachusetts. Cutting taxes for the rich, weakening unions and trying to make Wisconsin more like Alabama or Louisiana is a losing approach. So until we refocus Wisconsin in the direction of the future, we will unfortunately continue to experience a brain drain and weak job growth.



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