Friday, August 28, 2009

Exporting Brains

Trying to stop brain drain before it starts is a futile, and ultimately counterproductive, exercise. More promising, particularly for Rust Belt communities, are helping expatriates return home. Norfolk, Nebraska has a useful tip:

“You tend to hear about the problems and think all the kids want to get out,” said Brandon Day of Norfolk. “The survey tells us that’s not really true.” ...

... “We give a lot of lip service to the problems of declining population and brain drain,” Day said. “What we’ve done is adopted this defeatist attitude, and we don’t ever take any steps to do anything about it.”

Day serves as a board member of the Norfolk Area Recruiters, a group to attract graduates from the Norfolk area to return to the communities where they were raised.

While the group’s work has proven to be successful, it’s much more difficult to wait until young people go off to school, establish themselves in another community and then try to recruit them back to the area.

That recruitment process needs to start much earlier, he said.

“We need to give them some ownership in the community and make them feel from the get-go they have a vital role in the community. . . . We won’t see the results for at least five years, more likely 10 years, but that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t happen,” he said.

That makes a lot of sense. The likelihood of return often depends on the strength of the ties that bind. One way to start the recruitment process earlier is to help graduates leave. Connect them to the out-of-region experience they need through other people who have left the area.

Even Norfolk has a diaspora, a community often not considered when touting the region's human capital assets. That's a huge oversight. A town alumni network can pave the way for career success and keep talent connected to home.

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