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Report suggests 'brain gain' instead of brain drain

Quit fretting about a rural "brain drain" emptying small towns of their best and brightest, said a University of Minnesota researcher, who sees a counter-balancing "brain gain" of people in their 30s -- with college degrees, good incomes and scho...

Quit fretting about a rural "brain drain" emptying small towns of their best and brightest, said a University of Minnesota researcher, who sees a counter-balancing "brain gain" of people in their 30s -- with college degrees, good incomes and school-age children -- moving to rural areas.

Ben Winchester, a research fellow at the university's Extension Center for Community Vitality, noted in a report issued this month that "brain drain" is a phrase commonly used to describe the departure of young adults seeking better jobs, education and new experiences.

"It can be easy for the reality of the 'brain drain' to dominate how we think about population changes in rural areas," he writes in "Rural Migration: The Brain Gain of the Newcomers."

Brain drain is alarming and deserves attention, Winchester said, but rural and small-town leaders shouldn't overlook a more positive trend: the movement of somewhat older but still productive people from metropolitan areas to more rural settings.

By studying the changing demographics in a nine-county region of west-central Minnesota, he found "thousands of 'newcomers' to the region (who) were not there 10 years before."

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Statewide, "nearly every rural county ... experienced a growth" in residents between ages 35 and 44, and "this migration has occurred even in the southwestern portion of the state where ... total population has declined."

Nebraska numbers

Why are relatively young professionals migrating to rural areas, bucking the outward flow of younger adults? Winchester cites recent research in Nebraska's western panhandle.

"This area of the state has witnessed overall population loss but does have growth of newcomers in the 30-44 year age cohort -- similar to that in Minnesota," he wrote.

"Newcomers indicated that they moved to rural Nebraska because they wanted a simpler pace of life, safety and security, and low housing costs."

Many had college degrees and household incomes higher than the existing population.

"Rural America needs to rethink its description of gains and losses," Winchester said. "If rural America is losing high-school educated youth (the brain drain) and replacing them with those (who) at least have a bachelor's (degree), isn't this a brain gain?"

The new arrivals have other advantages, according to the University of Nebraska researchers: "The majority of the newcomers are in their prime earning years, so they are increasing the labor force in the region. Many new residents possess professional occupation skills. ... Many were also involved in their previous community (and) bring volunteer and leadership experience."

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Winchester said his own findings "remind us that the changes we witness across rural Minnesota are complex and reflect not just challenges, but significant opportunities."

N.D. skepticism

Richard Rathge, director of the North Dakota Data Center at North Dakota State University in Fargo, said after a quick review Thursday that he has questions about the Minnesota research, and he doesn't believe Winchester's analysis fits with what's happening in North Dakota.

He said much of the rural increase cited in the Minnesota study may be "amenity growth" in appealing areas.

"People want to live by lakes, rivers, recreational sites and scenic areas," he said, "and we've been seeing that in Minnesota for some time. The same thing is going on in Montana, Wyoming and Colorado."

North Dakota "doesn't have the same types of amenities," he said.

Also, the main age group really increasing in North Dakota is 18 to 24, which grew by 13 percent from 2000 to 2008, Rathge said.

"That's largely a function of individuals coming to our state for higher education," he said. "Our research shows that we're able to capture about a fourth of those people at least for one year after they finish. We are having some success holding those educated folks at least for a short time."

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North Dakota "also is seeing immigration through energy development," Rathge said. "You might see some 'brain gain' there, but one can only speculate."

Negative terms

The Minnesota study has sparked interest, notably from rural-based bloggers. Mike Knutson at South Dakota-based ReImagine Rural.com agrees that the use of negative language, such as "brain drain," creates problems for people trying to bring new life to rural America.

"Why would we expect outsiders to look positively at our communities when we imply that the smart people are all moving away?" he asked.

That drew a response from "Cat," who wrote: "Brain drain seems to imply that the town is left with the dumb folk who will never be the clever white-collar professionals city folk are. I think that devalues what makes small towns most attractive."

Anne Thompson, also responding to Knutson's blog, said negative slogans are not effective.

"If we want to motivate people in small towns to encourage their youth to stay or return, we should focus on the great things about small towns, not on how negatively it's going to impact us if they leave.

"We can't guilt-trip our youth into staying, but if we show them what a great place they're leaving, that is something they'll remember."

Offer opportunities

But Rathge, the North Dakota demographer, cautions against attributing movement to housing costs, flight from crime and such factors without more solid data.

"Here in North Dakota, we've seen many decades of outmigration of young adults," he said. "Community builders have been talking for decades about ways to hold them, including being positive rather than negative.

"The bottom line is we need to provide opportunities for people who want to stay. We have to be serious about economic development in North Dakota."

Reach Haga at (701) 780-1102; (800) 477-6572, ext. 102; or send e-mail to chaga@gfherald.com .

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