Demographers call the outward migration of young, educated residents the brain drain. It’s a trend that’s long been considered a problem for Mississippi as college graduates leave the state for more career opportunities.
According to Dr. Barbara J. Logue, senior demographer for the state Institutions of Higher Learning, the 2000 Census figures reveal that Mississippi’s net brain loss of young, single and highly educated was close to 5,000 people in the five-year period preceding the Census.
“That’s been happening and still is. We’ve invested in the education for these people and then they leave,” she said. “The biggest reasons are career advancement with better jobs and salaries.”
She says retaining these individuals and attracting an inward migration of them from other areas is an issue. “Mississippi still has a reputation of being backward and less educated. The image is still out there,” she said. “The brain drain will continue because we have this image that isn’t getting better.”
However, Brian Reithel, dean of the University of Mississippi’s School of Business Administration, sees hope. He wanted to find out how many school of business alums were living in the state and discovered that approximately 45% overall were here in 2000. Among those who’ve graduated since 2001, 56% are living in the state.
“I see increasing numbers staying here and that’s really interesting,” he said. “That’s potentially good news in Mississippi. I see the beginning of a new economy here. As we attract better companies, out better educated citizens will stay.”
He applauds the leadership and efforts of the Mississippi Development Authority and the Mississippi Economic Council for the work they’re doing to create better opportunities for the state’s youngest and brightest residents.
“It’s a great return on the investment we make in education when they stay,” he added. “I think Mississippi is on the upswing, and a lot of positive things are going on although we’re not where we need to be yet.”
David Rumbarger still sees the brain drain happening in the Tupelo area and feels the answer lies with more technology. “There are not enough new technology jobs for our in-state graduates,” he said. “They’re attracted to areas such as Atlanta and Houston that have more of these jobs. We don’t have as many large cities to attract them and younger people seem to see more opportunities in metropolitan areas.”
As the president of the Community Development Foundation in Tupelo, Rumbarger sees companies making inroads as they become more technology oriented. He cites defense contractors such as Aurora Flight in his area among those that are highly technical.
“It’s difficult to transition from a rural-based economy to a technology-based economy,” he said. “Now, eight out of 10 jobs are in the service sector, and only one or two are in manufacturing.”
Perhaps a more interesting phenomenon in Mississippi is the rural-to-urban migration within the state of these individuals. The net migration is more outward in the Delta and other rural areas, says Logue.
“The counties comprising the Mississippi Delta have been losing population for decades due to the mechanization of agriculture and, more recently, the loss of manufacturing jobs,” she said. “DeSoto County has been a prominent exception, attracting many newcomers via its status as part of the Memphis metropolitan statistical area. If it is excluded, the 12 remaining Delta counties collectively lost 4.2 % of their most highly educated people and 2.4% of those in the medium educated category.”
She cites lack of education, poverty and single-parent families as contributors to the area’s brain drain. “It all translates down the road and gets depressing very quickly,” she said. “We also are tied with West Virginia for the highest number of disabilities and that is costly to employers.”
Reithel says all Southern states, where 34% of the population lives in rural areas compared to only about 20% nationwide, are facing this dilemma. “The challenge of rural brain drain is an immediate and pressing issue here,” he said, “and points out how dynamic our employment picture is in Mississippi. It’s real and I’m not sure we’re addressing that as we should.”
While the state currently has five metropolitan statistical areas (MSA) and they are growing, it also has 19 areas designated as “micropolitan” areas. For this designation, an area must have at least one urban cluster containing a minimum of 10,000 people but less than 50,000. The state’s micropolitan areas encompass 26 counties and the majority have been losing population in recent years.
“This fact is worth noting because it stands in sharp contrast to the nation at large where many micropolitan areas are flourishing, attracting both people and businesses with cheaper land, lower taxes, lower crime rates and other amenities,” Logue said. “In Mississippi, however, many micropolitan areas seem to be losing ground to the attractions of metropolitan areas.”
She notes that recent gains of highly educated people have not been evenly distributed around the state, but have been concentrated in the metropolitan areas, especially fast-growing counties like Madison and DeSoto. Brain drains have likewise not been randomly distributed. Losses of more educated people have been concentrated in sectors that have been steadily losing residents for years, even decades.
“Micropolitan areas are of particular concern since that designation nationwide recognizes that such areas are vibrant and growing magnets for economic development, a fact which does not seem to hold true for Mississippi,” Logue added. “Brain drains in the state as a whole and even greater losses in particular counties are a matter for concern.”
At Ole Miss, Reithel hears more and more students discussing what they can do to stay in the state. “An increasing number of them are seeing opportunities here; more than I saw 15 years ago when I came here,” he said. “We’re in a tough world and need to be clear eyed and sure of our resolve in this climate.”
He believes the state is doing a better job of charting a bright economic future than ever before. “The investment in education for our youth and adults is the key and we can not relax,” he said. “We’re trying to get the message of business hope and opportunities in front of high school and college students. That will help them know what’s here.”
Contact MBJ contributing Lynn Lofton at email@example.com.