BUSINESS

New approaches needed to combat millennial brain drain in Mississippi

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At the Mississippi Economic Council Capital Day at the Downtown Jackson Mariott.

By Savannah Smith
Mississippi Capitol Press Corps

For more than six years, Mississippi has been suffering from an outmigration of citizens, particularly millennials after graduating from the state’s universities. State legislators have differing opinions on the issue.

According to census data via Rethink Mississippi, the state lost 3.9 percent of its millennial population (people born between 1981-2000) between 2010-2016. No other state exceeded a 2.8 percent decline during that time.

The issue has earned the name “brain drain” because of the number of individuals who become educated in Mississippi and then choose to leave the state. According to research from Mississippi Lifetracks/IHL via Rethink Mississippi, only half of recent graduates from Mississippi’s four-year public universities are working in the state five years after receiving a degree. Slightly more than 60 percent of in-state students have been retained, and a mere 7 percent of out-of-state students.

Many state officials agree on the issues that Mississippi facing, including a lack of job opportunities and the need for further developing our metropolitan areas, but have different ideas for going about solving these issues.

Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves said that a big portion of the brain drain argument is not accurate.

“What you’re going to find in Mississippi is that…as some of our universities have significantly increased their out of state students…a large percentage of the students that are leaving Mississippi are students that came from out of state to go to school here,” said Reeves.

Speaker of the House Philip Gunn agrees that a lot of the students included in statistics about brain drain are ones from out of state.

“A lot of kids from out of state come into our state schools with no intent to ever stay here,” Gunn said. “They’re going to go back home.”

Reeves and Gunn both acknowledged that Mississippi could improve the workforce in order to keep out-of-state students in state after graduating. He said what we are seeing in Mississippi is virtually no different than what is happening in every other state.

“This crisis that has been created is really not a crisis at all,” said Reeves.

The lieutenant governor said that one thing that sets Mississippi apart from other surrounding states that are not struggling with as much with brain drain is that it only has one metropolitan area, Jackson.

“I hope we can all agree that downtown Jackson has really struggled over the last 10 years,” said Reeves.

Millennials are leaving Mississippi most commonly for Texas, Georgia and Florida according to Rethink Mississippi via census data. Many others in Mississippi are flocking to nearby cities in Tennessee, including Memphis and Nashville.

Representative Jeremey Anderson, D-Moss Point, is a member of the bipartisan Mississippi Future Caucus. He said that brain drain in Mississippi is definitely a problem and explained that millennials love to seek challenge and opportunity, even if this is outside of the state.

“We would rather be in a job that challenges us than to be in a job where we’re bored and just making a paycheck,” said Anderson. “We’re not so homegrown to where we’re afraid to leave the state. Millennials are all about the opportunity; if I can get paid and have fun and do my job in Louisiana or California or New York, I’m leaving.”

However, Reeves said he is optimistic about the future of downtown Jackson, after legislation-implementing projects such as the Capital City Improvement District, where he says upwards of $8 to $10 million will be spent internally in Jackson for infrastructure and other things.

“If we’re going to be successful at attracting more and more millennials to stay in Mississippi, we’ve got to do a better job at downtown Jackson of making it attractive for people to live and work,” said Reeves.

Reeves also noted that there are not as many corporate jobs available for college graduates in the state. He said it’s not necessarily a government problem.

One of the Mississippi legislature’s hopes during its 133rd session is to help create a more educated workforce so companies will feel more inclined to invest in Mississippi.

“If we can’t get the right workforce, our businesses will die,” said Mississippi Economic Council Chairman William Yates during the MEC Capital Day.

Ashley Edwards from the Gulf Coast Business Council – One Coast was asked specifically what the Gulf Coast Business Council is doing to address brain drain in the coastal region of the state.

“Community development precedes economic development,” said Edwards. “[Millennials] are making decisions in large part based on community assets, quality of life and [being] in or proximity to markets like New Orleans, Mobile, certainly the coastal market [and] the beach market. We think that’s a real opportunity for the Mississippi Gulf Coast.”

Rep. Anderson said he’s excited about the attention this topic has been getting, and it’s a problem for Mississippi as a whole. He remembers being discouraged by people talking about wanting to leave the state in high school.

“It’s definitely a problem,” said Anderson. “We’ve been talking about this for about a year now, and I’m excited. The amount of attention that it’s been getting is really, really good because it is a problem, and if we don’t stop it early, it’s going to be too late.”

He said brain drain issue is a large reason he chose to stay in Mississippi.

“If everybody had that same mentality [of leaving the state] and we know the reasons why, who’s going to be the person to sacrifice and say, ‘Enough is enough. I’m going to sit here [and] I’m going to make it better for the next class, the next generation so that when they grow up, they don’t have to say, ‘I’m ready to leave here,’” said Anderson. “[The new dialogue is] ‘I want to stay here because there’s opportunity here. I want to stay here because I love my state, it provides me and my family the opportunity to thrive.’ Who’s going to be able to do that?”

Anderson said there is a lot of work to be done in Mississippi, and that he wants to be the person to do it.

“There are a lot of things that go on in Mississippi that have to be changed,” said Anderson. “Our backwards and regressive thinking as far as how accepting we are to social issues plays a major part in millennials [wanting to leave the state] because we’re more open to that.

“It’s kind of like [this mentality of] ‘You do you, I’m going to do me, and let’s just be merry,’” said Anderson. “That’s one thing that many millennials look for in communities is diversity. You don’t really get that a lot in Mississippi.”

Another issue some legislators claim causes brain drain is the lack of priority for our education system. The funding program our schools have previously abided by, known as the Mississippi Adequate Education Program, was recently under review, and legislators are pushing to fix this problem.

Speaker Gunn has recently filed a bill to rewrite the current formula of MAEP with a formula that is pupil-based rather than program-based. This program would provide students in public schools in Mississippi with a base of $4,800 per pupil and additional weights of a multiplier of 1.3 based on elements such as gifted students, English-language learners, low-income status, special education diagnosis, and high school students.

Changing the environment of Mississippi public schools could change the trajectory of our brain drain because more people would have better chances of attending good colleges with more scholarship opportunities, and more people would choose to move back to Mississippi so their children would have good school systems.

“We’ve had the worst brain drain in any point that I can remember in my history,” said Attorney General Hood.

The increase in cost for attending four-year colleges has also increased and could be another reason students are being forced to leave the state to find jobs.

“For the first time in our history, I’ve seen where we’re at the point where we’re not trying to encourage our kids to get a four-year education because they are going to take on all of this debt,” said Attorney General Jim Hood.

“So, if they’ve got $70,000 of debt for an undergraduate education, they’ve got to move out of state, because you can’t get a job [in Mississippi] that [allows you to] pay that, have a house, buy a car, and have a family,” said Hood. “So, if you’ve got that kind of debt, what we’ve got to do is try to reduce it.”

“If we can reduce the cost [of going to college] and keep those kids here, that’s the biggest investment we can make other than pre-K education,” said Hood.

Conversation continues at the Capitol about how to solve this problem of keeping educated young people in the state of Mississippi, and Rep. Anderson said he hopes new legislation surrounding this issue will appear before the end of this session.

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