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Gaining on the Drain

It’s no surprise to Lily Palmer BS’02 and Tom Bergman that they landed in Iron County, near the northern tip of Wisconsin. Stretching along the border of the Upper Peninsula and dotted by the hills of the Gogebic Range, the county’s natural amenities—including waterfalls, trout streams, more than 400 inland lakes and miles of trails for hiking and biking—offered plenty of enticement for the couple. And the 200 inches of annual snowfall? Not a problem for the self-proclaimed “snow people,” who met at a ski resort in Washington state.

About the only thing Iron County didn’t seem to offer was a promising career path. With just 7,000 year-round residents and a per capita income less than 70 percent of the national average, the county ranks among the poorest in Wisconsin. Despite a colorful history tied to the iron-mining boom in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when cities such as Hurley and Ironwood, Michigan, developed almost overnight, the region today is marked by high unemployment, declining manufacturing and a rapidly winnowing population. It’s the kind of place that young, college-educated professionals tend to leave, not seek out.

Except that’s exactly what Bergman and Palmer did. After spending a winter working on a vacation home near Hurley for Palmer’s parents, the couple decided to relocate to Hurley in 2005. They bought a home and put down roots. Bergman, a geologist by training, took a job at a ski shop, but eventually both found professional jobs. Bergman became Iron County’s zoning administrator, and Palmer works as a soil scientist with Coleman Engineering, just across the border in Michigan.

Young, educated and actively engaged in their community, the couple fits the profile of the kind of people rural communities across the Upper Midwest have spent decades trying to attract, often without success. Between 1990 and 2000, more than half of the rural counties in Midwestern states lost population, continuing a generations-long exodus of young people to other parts of the country. The phenomenon, known as “brain drain,” is a much-belabored issue for states such as Wisconsin, which invests significant resources toward educating its citizens only to see many of them move elsewhere. According to one study by the publication Postsecondary Education Opportunity, Wisconsin colleges and universities handed out 505,767 bachelor’s degrees between 1989 and 2007, but the number of college-educated people living in the state increased by only 377,275 during that time. The net loss of more than 125,000 college graduates ranked Wisconsin among the bottom 10 states in terms of retaining college graduates.

In places such as Iron County—which lost 35 percent of its residents aged 20 to 24 during the 1990s—those data feed fears about sustaining rural economic vitality and quality of life. The county is one of 10 in Wisconsin where more people died between 2000 and 2008 than were born, and the many long-time residents worry that the community services they depend on, namely medical care, will disappear with the aging population. As Bob Jacquart, owner of an Ironwood fabric-products business, points out, “We have five dentists in the area, and they all graduated from high school in 1968.”

But there is hope in the presence of people like Palmer and Bergman—and perhaps a lesson. To date, much of the discussion around Wisconsin’s brain drain problem has revolved around the need for economic development, with state and business leaders calling for more incentives to spark job creation. And while jobs undoubtedly are an important part of attracting and retaining young, educated workers, employment prospects didn’t weigh heavily on Bergman’s or Palmer’s mind when deciding to settle down in Iron County. The choice was more about a way of life.

Two hundred miles south of Iron County, CALS demographer Richelle Winkler has been studying the factors behind worker migration, and she says something unique is happening in rural Wisconsin. “It’s a complicated story,” she warns, but one not entirely devoid of promising signs.

For one thing, “Wisconsin is doing much better than non-metropolitan counties in the U.S. overall,” says Winkler, an associate researcher in the Applied Population Laboratory, part of the Department of Community and Environmental Sociology. While census figures show that the 47 counties in Wisconsin defined as non-metropolitan lost about 35,000 people aged 20 to 29 between 1990 and 2000, they actually gained college-educated residents. And while that’s true for the country’s rural areas as a whole, the rate at which college grads are moving into rural areas in Wisconsin is above the national average, Winkler says.

One possible explanation is Wisconsin’s relative economic diversity. Out-migration of college-educated people tends to be most pronounced in counties that lean heavily on mining or farming, which is why states such as Pennsylvania, Illinois, Iowa and North Dakota struggle with chronic brain drain. Wisconsin has no mining-dependent counties, and despite the importance of agriculture to the state’s economy, only two—Lafayette and Clark—are considered farming-dependent by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which factors only on-farm employment in making the designation.

But Winkler is interested to learn if another factor is driving in-migration in places like Iron County. For her doctoral thesis, she studied 14 Wisconsin counties defined as “amenity destinations” for their natural or recreational appeal. Those counties may have an advantage closing the brain drain by playing to young professionals’ interest in quality of life factors, she says.

“Some of my research focuses on how being a destination county impacts community well-being: How does migration impact human and social capital, educational attainment, labor force data, age and income levels?” she says.

Winkler’s research echoes a growing number of academics and consultants who are saying that amenities play a critical role in a community’s ability to attract and retain an educated workforce. In his 2002 book The Rise of the Creative Class, Richard Florida described a modern breed of intellectual professionals who seek out communities that fulfill their desire for creativity and diversity. Rebecca Ryan, author of the book Live First, Work Second, proclaims that young people put more emphasis on the right place than the right job.

But those arguments would seem to favor cities like Seattle and Austin, which have won legions of young talent by fostering rich cultural offerings spanning food, music and the arts. Can small-town Wisconsin compete?

Will Andresen thinks so. A UW-Extension community resource development agent in Iron County, Andresen is spearheading an effort called the Gogebic Range Next Generation Initiative, which is trying to attract young professionals by highlighting the region’s attractions and quality of life. He notes that when the state of Michigan surveyed 13,500 college graduates about what they wanted in a place to live, 38 percent said they wanted to live in a small town, and 36 percent said they preferred a rural area. The factors the new grads judged as most important were scenic beauty, safe streets, affordability, a place to raise a family and good schools. “If this doesn’t describe our area, I don’t know what does,” says Andresen.

When Andresen gave the same survey to 668 high school and college students and young professionals in northern Wisconsin, the same top priorities emerged (in slightly different order). The results also confirmed one of Ryan’s main arguments, with three in four respondents saying they would choose a place to live before seeking a job.

Drive an hour up Highway 2 and you’ll find a stark contrast to the sunny hopes of the Gogebic Next Generation Initiative. Bayfield County, a Northwoods jewel of forests, fruit orchards and Lake Superior shoreline, is hardly short on amenities. But natural beauty hasn’t helped stem the tide of young people leaving: In the 1990s, the county lost a stunning 56 percent of its 20- to 24-year-olds, the worst out-migration in the state.

“It’s not because they don’t want to be here. They just don’t have a choice,” says Billie Hoopman, Bayfield’s city clerk. Hoopman is an exception. After earning a degree at UW-Eau Claire, she returned home and married a local man whose family operates a Lake Superior commercial fishing business. But she can’t think of many childhood friends who are still around. “There are a lot who try to stay, but they give up.”

The reason? Jobs. A lack of employment opportunity, combined with high property values, helps send young people scurrying.

“Jobs in rural areas are paying a lot less than in urban areas, and that trend on wages has been downward,” says Gary Green, a CALS professor of community and environmental sociology who studies rural labor markets. “People in rural areas make about 60 cents on the dollar that people in urban areas make.”

That disparity in career opportunity makes it difficult for many students from rural backgrounds to imagine moving back home after graduation. CALS student Kelly Neis, for example, hails from Benton, a tiny village of 1,000 in southwestern Wisconsin. Her education is being supported in part by a Wisconsin Rural Youth Scholarship, a need-based aid program created by CALS to ease the cost of college for rural families and help attract more rural students to the university. But she acknowledges that her likely career path won’t take her back to the rolling hills of the driftless region.

“For me, the main factor that will have the most pull on where I live is a job opportunity,” she says. “My ideal career is in the field of physical therapy or athletic training, so I would go where jobs are available.”

Fellow Rural Youth Scholar Ian Begeman, a genetics major from Chaseburg, Wisconsin, has similar doubts about heading back to his hometown. “I like the small-town feel,” he says. “Unfortunately, there’s not a whole lot in my field in the area.”

Many rural leaders expect the job outlook to improve as emerging agricultural and environmental industries such as bioenergy develop. More investment in renewable energy is likely to bring new generating facilities and jobs to rural areas rich in potential sources of energy such as cropland, wood and paper waste, wind, sun and water. That could bode well for places like Bayfield. “The green economy is going to happen faster than we thought,” says Larry MacDonald, Bayfield’s mayor. “I don’t think initially the incomes are going to be real high, but I think they’ll be at least market rate here. In the long run, that’s going to be a way of life.”

Health care also promises to be a growth industry in rural areas. Amenity destinations like Iron and Bayfield counties tend to draw a lot of retirees, and rural populations almost everywhere else are aging. The need is already so critical that the UW School of Medicine and Public Health has put in place a program to give preferred admission to students who commit to practicing in rural areas. Other states are banding together to take a regional approach to addressing rural health care needs.

“A fundamental issue about rural brain drain is about people who can deliver vital services and contribute to the community,” says CALS sociologist Leann Tigges, who studies work and gender roles in rural America. “Medical areas are incredibly important,” Tigges says.

But Tigges’ research on manufacturing and labor needs has uncovered another key concern in counties of all sizes, but certainly in rural counties losing their young. “We talk a lot about ‘college-educated’. The notion of skills needs to be expanded,” she says. “Society’s emphasis is on college education, yet there’s an absence of work that requires a college education.” She says instead rural communities should think about what kinds of jobs people in the community need to be able to stay. “You have to think about jobs for women as well as men. You have to think about how to be a good employer.”

That thinking is echoed by sociologists Maria Kefalas and Patrick Carr, authors of the 2009 book, Hollowing Out the Middle. While researching the book, the authors spent six months in a 2,000-resident town in northeastern Iowa locked in a seemingly endless struggle with brain drain and waning community vitality. Kefalas and Carr concluded that cultivating young people’s connection to the community’s assets is a good start. But they also recommend rural communities do more to train “stayers”—the long-term residents who choose not to leave—with skills that benefit both them and the community, such as computer technology, health care, sustainable agriculture and green energy. Neglecting these critical community needs, they argue, puts young people on an inevitable path toward leaving.

“What happens at the level of the small town is mirrored and magnified and spreads. The chain of events set in motion reverberates and has consequences for the state and the Midwest as a whole,” they write. “Simply put, if you start preparing people to leave when they are in their teens, should you be surprised when many of them migrate away from their home states once they finish college?”

Back in Iron County, Palmer and Bergman feel no such despair for their chosen home. In fact, they’re brimming with optimism, fueled by the community spirit surrounding the Gogebic Range Next Generation Initiative. Will Andresen invited Rebecca Ryan to come speak, and 250 people attended her talk. Their enthusiasm has spilled over into a full-throttle community campaign, with four committees now working on ways to enhance and promote the region’s amenities. One group is mapping out a regional bike trail, which would link five cities on either side of the border and better connect their professional and cultural resources. Another committee is building a website called “The Beautiful Northwoods Adventure,” with the goal of luring more people like Palmer and Bergman to move to the area.

Even long-time residents like Bob Jacquard, who has seen generations come and go through the region, are excited. He already employs 160 people at his business, which makes Stormy Kromer winter hats and other fabric products, but now plans to expand. “To grow, you have to know your potential. We had a job fair to know what is out there, and 70 people said they would work at our business,” he says.

“If we can make this place friendly to young professionals, they will come, and then maybe their spouses will be entrepreneurs,” Palmer says, her pride for her adopted home flowing. “We’ve got this wonderful place, and we could (just) leave, or we could try to attract young people and make it like Jackson Hole or Bozeman.”

Meanwhile, students like Kelly Neis and Ian Begeman are nearing graduation and the fateful choices that follow. Will they embrace the familiar affinity for open spaces and pastoral beauty? Or will the lure of jobs win out? “The biggest thing is just having a job I’m satisfied with and enjoy doing,” says Begeman. “Then, if I could also live in a nice environment, I’d probably live in the country.” The real challenge for rural Wisconsin may not be choosing between developing jobs or amenities. It will be figuring out how to do both at the same time.