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IN DEPTH: As young professionals flock to urban areas, rural Wisconsin aims to lure them back

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Since graduating from high school, Zach Dahl has earned a degree in communications and economics from the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, served in the U.S. Coast Guard in Alabama, worked in finance in Oregon and returned to Wisconsin to work at the family business, Dahl Financial Group in Sauk City.

Dahl has a college education, gained work experience and is living in his home state as a working professional. But he is part of a shrinking group in Wisconsin, especially in rural counties.

Throughout the state, young college graduates are increasingly finding themselves facing a dilemma when they return home: stay and accept lower wages while paying down student debt, or leave and pursue more lucrative employment opportunities in urbanized areas.

The phenomenon of educated youth leaving their home area has been dubbed “brain drain,” and is ongoing throughout the United States.

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Wisconsin becomes older

A study done by Morris Davis of the University of Wisconsin-Madison found Wisconsin lost an average of 14,000 degree-holding graduates annually from 2008-12.

The rate of young people leaving can be seen in publicly available data. According to the Wisconsin Tax Alliance, the median age in Wisconsin counties has increased on average by 4.86 years from 2000 to 2015.

But some counties have been more affected than others. Juneau County’s median age went from 36.6 to 44.4 during that time, an increase of 7.8 years. Adams County increased by a similar amount at 6.9 years, while Sauk County only increased by 0.3.

Iron County saw the greatest increase in median age, from 37.1 in 2000 to 52.4 in 2015, a total of 15.3 years. Iron County’s median age increase kept pace with the calendar, aging one and a half decades over 15 years.

Urban and suburban areas like Dane, Milwaukee, and Waukesha counties have been somewhat insulated from the trend, with a slower increase in median age.

When it comes to the share of the county population with a bachelor’s degree or higher, urban and suburban counties fare better as well. Juneau County is the second lowest in the state at 12.3 percent, Adams County ranks fourth lowest at 12.8 percent and at 22.2 percent, Sauk County is slightly above the state average of 21.7. The three highest counties are Dane, Ozaukee, and Waukesha at 47.9, 46.1 and 41.2 percent respectively. Clark County, in the rural northcentral region of the state, is the lowest at 11.5 percent.

“We have a problem, and there’s debate over how big that problem is,” Wisconsin Tax Alliance Research Director Dale Knapp said. When it comes to Wisconsin’s college graduates, “we are losing them to other states in significant numbers.”

Salaries and wages are a common driver for migration to urban areas.

“When you look at average wages and the kinds of occupations that college graduates would be going into, average pay (in Wisconsin), starting pay here is 10 to 15 percent below the national average, and sometimes more than that,” Knapp said. Minneapolis, Chicago and Indianapolis are offering competitive pay, that is attractive to college graduates.

Cities offer not only attractive employment opportunities, but also a wide variety of amenities to support a lifestyle that is attractive to people who have just earned their degree.

“Young college graduates are looking for urban locations, usually larger urban locations with lots of amenities,” Knapp said. “For Wisconsin, their choice is really (only) Milwaukee.”

There is also an imbalance between the degrees earned in Wisconsin and the industries with available jobs. “We’ve historically been a manufacturing state,” Knapp said. “A lot of times, we don’t have significant numbers of the kinds of occupations that many of these college graduates are going into.”

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Dr. Jennifer Gavinski teaches class

Dr. Jennifer Gavinski, professor of biology, reviews material for an exam during an anatomy and physiology class at Madison Area Technical College campus in Reedsburg.

The degree debate

For Mauston Mayor Brian McGuire, brain drain hits close to home. He worked as a teacher for 34 years, and still works part time as a substitute in Mauston.

“We do have plenty of opportunities to work, but a lot of those are not requiring degrees,” McGuire said. “So when people do want to advance academically to further their career, they are looking elsewhere.”

McGuire thinks where people choose to live is also a matter of preference and not just about pay. Both of his sons are college educated, but one prefers to live in the city while the other “really likes small-town living.”

If more people were open to the idea of forgoing a four-year degree and looking at other educational opportunities, brain drain might be less extreme.

Education, in McGuire’s view, should help people find their strengths and then build upon them. “Part of our job as educators is to look for your strengths and to help you see them and develop them,” McGuire said.

This includes emphasizing to students a four-year degree is not the only post high school option for a career.

“The college degree is, for a lot of people, just an exercise in persistence,” McGuire said. “I don’t equate the college degree with more intelligence.”

Wisconsin Dells Mayor Brian Landers agrees. Landers, who teaches criminal justice at Madison Area Technical College, said he is constantly telling students and parents a bachelor’s degree is not necessary for everyone.

“You don’t need a bachelor’s degree to earn a very good living and be successful,” Landers said. “Our welding students, we have a certificate program for welding that’s less than one year, and they’re hired before they leave the campus. Oftentimes with jobs upwards of $60,000 to $80,000 (in annual pay).”

Landers feels some educators are “turning a blind eye to a lot of the associates degree work that is out there.”

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Wisconsin Dells Mayor Brian Landers, who teaches criminal justice at Madison Area Technical College, said he is constantly telling students and parents a bachelor's degree is not necessary to become a law enforcement officer.

Finding rural attraction

New Lisbon Mayor Lloyd Chase has seen young professionals leave his city as well. Chase has encouraged several businesses to move to New Lisbon, but said “they want a certain population in a certain radius.”

Although he understands the reasoning, Chase said this presents a challenge for smaller municipalities. “The difficulty is we don’t have a dense population here,” Chase said. “That drives a lot of things.”

Chase’s son works as an engineer for the Department of Transportation, but in order to pursue the career of his choice, he had to leave home for Stoughton. “He would not be able to come here with the kind of work he wants to do,” Chase said.

Young college graduates leaving a state can be offset by those that come in, but ensuring the latter keeps up with the former can be a challenge.

State Rep. Ed Brooks, R-Reedsburg, co-authored a workforce package designed to attract young college graduates to rural areas in Wisconsin. The package would create rural opportunity zones throughout the state and offer benefits to college graduates who move there, given certain conditions.

The main benefit is state assistance in paying back student loans. College graduates who moved to a rural opportunity zone would receive a repayment of up to $25,000 or 40 percent of their outstanding student loans, whichever is less. “The most that a person can get is $5,000 a year, for five years,” said Brooks’ staff member Kathryn Heitman.

Some have voiced skepticism over rural opportunity zones, claiming a person could stay in Wisconsin for five years and leave after receiving assistance in paying back their student loans. But Heitman thinks the benefits of having a working professional in a rural area for five years outweighs the potential drawbacks of them leaving after the five years.

“I think this is something that can get bipartisan support,” Heitman said.

Other states, such as Kansas and Oklahoma, have also enacted rural opportunity zone legislation. Wisconsin’s ROZ legislation is partially modeled after Kansas’ but Kansas goes further with benefits, offering temporary income-tax exemptions to participants in the program.

Knapp says “those kinds of policies can help stem the brain drain,” but remains wary of ROZs as a solution to the overall problem. Given young people’s’ known preferences for urban areas and the lifestyles they offer, he said it is a legitimate question whether they would stay in a rural opportunity zone.

Chase was more skeptical. “I think that when people get student loans they’re making an investment in a lifetime of higher pay,” Chase said. “And so I’m not very liberal in my thinking about forgiving student loans because people have chosen to do that in order to elevate themselves above a certain pay level.”

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Shelby and Victoria listen to teacher

Victoria Donaldson of Mauston, left, and Shelby Northcutt of Baraboo take notes for an exam review during an anatomy and physiology class at Madison Area Technical College campus in Reedsburg.

Young professionals look forward

Not all solutions are achieved through legislation. In addition to working in finance in Sauk City, Dahl is also the chairman of the Sauk Prairie Young Connection, a group designed to offer a sense of community to young professionals.

“We just focus on issues that young people have,” Dahl said. “Whether that’s getting into the workplace right out of college, whether that’s networking with peers, whether that’s dealing with baby boomers.”

During Dahl’s tenure as chairman, the club also rebranded to be more inclusive toward young people working in blue-collar professions. The club has seen more members working in plumbing, electric and agriculture. “We try to incorporate that, and that’s gone really well,” Dahl said.

Dahl said he thinks that in college it is easy to meet people because most of the students are in similar situations, but after graduating it can be more challenging. “You get into town and that’s kind of hard to find,” Dahl said.

The Sauk Prairie Young Connection aims to offer that network of peers to young people and replicate the social atmosphere many of them have become accustomed to. “If you’re there for two to three years, you start to get to know the people and then you feel like you’re part of a community — it happened to me,” Dahl said.

To some, this community-based approach can cultivate a sense of belonging.

Although brain drain may continue for years, if the burden of student debt can be eased and young college educated people are made to feel part of the rural communities they find themselves in, some of them might just stay.

You can reach Jake Ekdahl on Twitter @JakeaEkdahl