Brain drain, the flight of young professionals and recent graduates from the state, is not a new problem, but Iowa employers must adopt new ways to attract talent by developing personal connections, said Dee Baird, president of Cedar Rapids Metro Economic Alliance, during a forum Wednesday.

“We are at war in the nation with 19,000 municipalities. It gets amplified in the Midwest because we’re not as well known,” said Baird, a panelist at a July 22 forum about brain drain from Iowa hosted by IowaWatch and the Corridor Business Journal.

IowaWatch and the Corridor Business Journal collaborated on a Brain Drain forum on July 22 2015 in Coralville. Credit: Lauren Mills/IowaWatch

Panelists, including Iowa employers and recent graduates, highlighted the importance of focusing on career opportunities, fostering connections between employees and the community and providing mentorships to nurture young talent.

Chad Loomis, an intern with the economic alliance and a Coe College student, said graduates often don’t think of Iowa as a place where they can achieve success in their career.

“Growing up in Iowa you’re told about Timmy who’s doing great things in D.C. You’re not told about John in Des Moines,” the Emmetsburg, Iowa, native said.

Loomis said graduates don’t realize they can progress to the top of their field in Iowa as well. He said his internship with the alliance has made him more aware of the opportunities available in the state.

In an IowaWatch report on brain drain from Iowa published earlier this year, 10 student journalists at seven Iowa campuses conducted interviews with 18 graduating students about their post-graduation plans. Fourteen said they planned to leave the state.

The findings mirrored surveys conducted by Iowa universities that found large numbers of students leaving — roughly half of recent graduates at Iowa State University, the University of Iowa and Drake University left the state. However, about 85 percent of University of Northern Iowa graduates accepted jobs in Iowa.

Recent Iowa State graduate and forum panelist Maria Vognsen, said the primary reason she took a job with UnitedHealth Group in Minneapolis was because she liked the culture of the company. Vognsen said she enjoyed that the company was in a metropolitan area with other job opportunities and a developed entertainment scene. Although she has not considered leaving Minneapolis, she said she might if a better job opportunity came along.

This fountain is part of the recently revamped Cowles Commons in downtown Des Moines that serves as an urban recreational spot. Credit: Lyle Muller/IowaWatch

Panelist Stephen Gruber-Miller, a former IowaWatch intern and May graduate of Grinnell College, said he had hoped to find work outside of Iowa, especially after seeing many of his friends leave for larger cities.

“I’ve lived in Iowa all my life and was just hoping to experience something different for a while,” Gruber-Miller said.

Gruber-Miller recently took a job with the Iowa City Press-Citizen and said, although he doesn’t plan to stay in Iowa forever, he has come to appreciate the opportunities the job presents.

“The Press-Citizen gave me a chance to do what I wanted to do, which is journalism,” he said.

Panelist Jacque Patterson, associate vice president of ACT, Inc., originally left the state after graduating from the University of Iowa, but eventually decided to return to her home state.

“I was worried I was committing career suicide (when I returned to Iowa). There was a job on every corner in Chicago,” Patterson said.

She said she returned to raise her family and be closer to relatives.

However, Baird said we cannot continue to sell Iowa’s family-centered culture to young professionals.

“Young people that are moving here from out of state have said to us loud and clear, ‘quit saying this is a great place to raise a family. Quite frankly I’m not sure when I’m getting married or if I’m going to have children,’” Baird said. “We need to be all things to all people.”

Rebecca Sullens, associate director of career and civic engagement center at Cornell College, who attended the forum, said recent graduates don’t want to move to a city of families with children when they are young and single.

Personal connections with the community, including entertainment options, peer groups and an emotional connection with the workplace, are key things young professionals applying at Whirlpool Corporation are looking for, said panelist Tim White, plant lead of Amana Operations at Whirlpool.

The University of Iowa provides multiple opportunities for entertainment, including Big Ten sports. Kinnick Stadium in fall 2014. Credit: Lyle Muller/IowaWatch

White said he focuses on engaging potential Amana Whirlpool employees in the social culture of the Corridor when they fly in to visit — taking them to restaurants in Iowa City and Cedar Rapids and showcasing the downtowns.

“Everyone’s so connected and they’re watching their friends on Facebook on what they’re doing every Friday night and Saturday night. That younger demographic, they want to have an emotional connection. At the end of the day, are they connected with their area or their peer group.”

White said mentorships are one way for young professionals to learn and become invested in their job, as well as for employers to show they are engaged and friendly.

Panelists said Iowa companies and the state as a whole need to do more to reach out to young professionals and college students in Iowa and other states to tout Iowa job opportunities and communities.

For Baird, internship programs are key. But, she said, “it takes all of us to engage these young people.”

She said the program has shown interns job opportunities available in Iowa and how they can become invested in Iowa communities, making them more likely to consider jobs in the state.

“We’ve planted a seed,” she said.

Watch the forum discussion:

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