Brain gain or brain drain?

Oklahoma makes progress in effort to retain, attract college graduates

Friday, April 19, 2013

by Staci Elder Hensley

The Journal Record

Don’t say the words “brain drain” when you talk to Drew Dugan. “It simply doesn’t apply anymore,” said Dugan, vice president of education and workforce development for the Greater Oklahoma City Chamber. While Oklahoma’s higher education graduates used to flee the state in droves, today it’s almost completely the opposite, he said.

“When you look at our numbers compared with how it was five to 10 years ago, the number of folks staying here after graduation is way up,” he said.

Until a decade or so ago, most Oklahomans either left the state to go to college or left within one to five years after graduating. Those with an advanced degree, in particular, usually moved elsewhere due to a lack of jobs at home.

Today, with an unemployment rate among the lowest in the nation – 5.1 percent for December 2012 – Oklahoma is attractive to higher education graduates, who face a national unemployment rate of 7.8 percent. In addition, Oklahoma’s business-friendly policies have helped create long-term employment opportunities in fields like aerospace, biosciences, defense, engineering, finance, health care, manufacturing, oil and gas and sales, among others. Add that to a low cost of living and an increasingly high quality of life, and you have a magic combination that’s keeping our best and brightest within state borders, Dugan said.

According to the Regents’ 2012 Employment Outcomes Report, an average of 87 percent of Oklahoma’s higher education graduates are living and working in the state for at least a year after graduation, with slight variations depending on the type of degree, said Ben Hardcastle, director of communications for the Oklahoma State Regents for Higher Education. Five years after graduation, that rate remains high, at about 70 percent. (See accompanying charts for percentages by degree level.)

“Students want to stay in Oklahoma as they grow their career, and if you look at the recent data, especially the past three years, I think it’s pretty impressive,” he said.

Driving the state’s improved statistics are initiatives like the Greater Oklahoma City Chamber’s six-year-old Greater Grads program, aimed at encouraging college and university graduates to stay in Oklahoma.

A key element of the Greater Grads approach is extensive involvement with career fairs as a way to reach out to students around the state, especially in the metro area. Dugan said the chamber partners with Oklahoma employers to attend and/or conduct 15 to 20 fairs each year, with an average of 1,000 student attendees and more than 100 employers at each event.

The boots-on-the-ground, face-to-face approach is invaluable, Dugan said.clientuploads/IMGP0524.jpg

“The whole career fair thing is very important. A lot of impressive students have made their decisions to stay or go based on what they see there,” he said. “The number of companies participating as opposed to six years ago is really dramatic. Companies know that if they want the best and brightest, they have to get them early.”

The second element in the Greater Grads program is internships. “National statistics show that if a college student has an internship, he or she is more likely to stay,” Dugan said.

Students who obtain internships develop their skills, find mentors, earn college credit and make valuable professional and personal contacts. If their internship is successful, they are frequently hired by that same company.

The Greater Oklahoma City Chamber staff does more than connect students and employers – they teach employers how to create and manage intern programs and at the same time reach out to educational facilities to boost student interest. The chamber, along with volunteers, also conduct weeklong classes in which student interns learn vital skills like business etiquette, the basics of networking, how to dress for a professional job, how to handle a job interview and how to put together an effective resume.

“They also network with other interns, and the beauty of it is that they get to know other students their same age who are going into other industries,” Dugan said. “These events will hopefully produce our future leaders and allow them to begin building their own professional network. That makes them even more likely to stay. It’s very important to them that they are part of a community and that they can make a difference.”

Not content with reversing brain drain, state leaders are now focusing on “brain gain” – persuading other states’ graduates to come to Oklahoma, he said. They have had particular success with students from Texas, he said. For this reason, last fall the chamber participated in its first out-of-state career fair at the University of North Texas in Denton.

“We got an overwhelming response; many of them want to come here for internships,” he said. “So we determined it’s time to take our message on what’s happening in Oklahoma City on the road.”

This fall, Dugan said Greater Grads representatives plan to take part in student career fairs in Arkansas, Kansas and Texas.

The Greater Oklahoma City Chamber remains one of only a few groups in the country that take this proactive approach to graduate retention, he said. Its Greater Grads program is modeled after a similar one in Philadelphia, which has roughly 120,000 collegiate-level students – the same as the Oklahoma City metro area.

“Normally people are quite surprised to learn how many of our graduates stay here,” Hardcastle said. “We don’t have data from 20 years ago, but these numbers are impressive, and I think this speaks a lot about the state. We’re headed in the right direction.”

Denise Reid, director of talent strategies and recruitment for the Tulsa Regional Chamber, concurs with Hardcastle.

“I think there is a misconception about how well we’re doing. We are definitely making some strides. We (Oklahoma) retain a large percentage of our graduates. We have positive in-migration versus out-migration – that’s changed over the past three to four years,” Reid said.

The Tulsa Regional Chamber’s approach to retaining higher education graduates is to provide an incubator for students who complete internships so that they will connect to the Tulsa area and remain there after graduation, she said.

The Tulsa Regional Chamber partners with the area’s major employers, including Bank of Oklahoma, Williams and Magellan, to create internships for college students.

“It’s how we’re weaving the opportunity and engagement through our community to get them to become part of our culture,” Reid said.