Saturday, June 23, 2018


Halting Iowa's brain drain
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All five of these Luther College seniors plan to leave Iowa next year. They illustrate a growing trend in the state, that's forced lawmakers to strategize about attracting and retaining young workers. (MPR Photo/Erin Galbally)
Iowa isn't having much luck keeping twentysomethings in the state. In fact more young people are leaving Iowa then just about anywhere in the country, except North Dakota. Iowa lawmakers recently debated and abandoned a plan to exempt people under 30 from paying state incomes taxes. In small Iowa towns like Decorah, the problem is being felt firsthand.

Decorah, Iowa. — Decorah, Iowa is about 10 miles from the Minnesota border. It's a picturesque community that boasts limestone bluffs, an old fashion main street and one of the state's premier colleges. It's here at Luther College, in a historic brick building, that five seniors gather to talk about their plans following graduation. Julie Van Scoy grew up in the Mississippi River town of Clinton. Van Scoy says she hopes to head overseas, to teach English in Japan next year.

"If I wasn't doing that I would probably be looking at getting a job in the Twin Cities. And in terms of staying in Iowa, I probably would not be or will not be staying in Iowa to look for a career," Van Skoy explains. "I would see Iowa as a destination to come back to raise a family or something later on, but I definitely want to get away for a while."

Just next to Van Skoy is Jacque Smith, who hails from Epworth, about two hours south. She says her siblings plan to stick around the state, but she is ready to leave with no plans to return. Smith says she wants to explore the world. She says other friends who would like to stay in the state simply can't afford to.

"My college roommate here is a nursing major and would love to be near her family in Dubuque. But they get paid terribly in that area, so she's going to be in Rochester, which is not that far away but is a significant salary increase," says Smith.

"I would see Iowa as a destination to come back to raise a family or something later on, but I definitely want to get away for a while."
- Julie Van Scoy - Iowa college student

It's not only nurses that stand to make more by crossing state lines. Teachers also make significantly higher starting salaries in Minnesota than in Iowa. Mark Peltz is something of an expert on the subject. He heads Luther College's Career Services. It's Peltz's job to help students find employment following graduation.

"Approximately half of our Iowa residents seek and get employment in Iowa. Half do not, and when you look at that other half that leave the state, about half of those, 25-percent, leave the state and get employment in Minnesota," explains Peltz, breaking down the numbers. "So if you want to pinpoint one state that's attracting the majority of our students it is without question the state of Minnesota."

Peltz says employers from Minnesota and even Wisconsin recruit on campus in higher numbers than their Iowa counterparts. He gives an example of a major insurance company based in Des Moines that doesn't do any campus outreach, compared to a similar business based in Minneapolis that comes to Luther at least once a year. He says things like that make a difference.

The challenge for Iowa's collection of small communities seeking to retain young people is complex. Just ask Jerry Freund. He's the Decorah City Administrator. In his office overlooking the high school football fields, he says change can be painful for for small towns. Freund says while Decorah's population has remained relatively stable, there are concerns about the town's future. But he says so far there's no consensus on what to do.

"There isn't a singular voice that says we need to go all out to expand the employment base and do these the kinds of things to make these opportunities more available," says Freund. "There's a political divide and a philosophical divide that I think plays into this issue as well."

That philosophical and political divide has already shown up in a debate over what kind of employers small towns should try to attract. Decorah, for example, is still recovering from a lengthy battle over a proposal to build a WalMart on the outskirts of town. The project ultimately went through but not before making its way to the Iowa Supreme Court and attracting national headlines. And while young people say that WalMarts aren't likely to keep many twentysomethings in small towns, they say Iowa's future does depend on economic development and good paying jobs in towns like Decorah.