Michigan's talent drain under more scrutiny

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LANSING — A group of seniors at Michigan State University has teamed up with the Michigan Economic Development Corp. and the Lansing Area Economic Partnership to find out where college graduates are going.

What they’ve found so far, according to senior Amanda Vandermeulen of Kalamazoo, is that retaining talented graduates must be a multi-faceted endeavor.

“Obviously, the first thing students want is job opportunities,” she said, “but the second result of our survey is quality of place: how pretty a place is and if there are things to do.”

The initiative called Spotlight Michigan surveyed more than 850 MSU students about their attitudes toward getting a job in or out of the state. Beyond quality of place, Spotlight is also finding that most graduates aren’t even bothering to look for a job in Michigan.

“The perception of the job market in Michigan is skewed, but diving unemployment rates don’t help that much either,” said Vandermeulen.

For December, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported the Michigan unemployment rate to be 14.6 percent.

Phil Gardner of the Collegiate Employment Research Institute at MSU echoed what Spotlight Michigan is finding: The perception of lack of jobs in the state is greater than the reality due to a variety of factors, including overemphasized press coverage of a failing economy.

“There are opportunities here — certainly not enough for everyone,” said Gardner. “Hopefully, we can generate new employment options for young people that haven’t gone very far out of state.”

Gardner said his institute found that 65 percent of MSU graduates are employed in the Great Lakes states.

Michael Boulus, executive director of the Presidents Council, State Universities of Michigan, conducted a 2008 survey of more than 5,000 college graduates. The council, which represents all 15 public universities, found that nearly 30 percent of Michigan graduates live in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois and Ohio.

His study found that higher salaries also lure Michigan graduates out of the state. Moreover, 56 percent of those surveyed who were still job-hunting said they weren’t considering Michigan.

Both Boulus and Spotlight representatives said their research isn’t designed to keep new graduates in Michigan but to create an environment that will retain and attract talent. Vandermeulen said, “Communities should be attractive both to the people that live there and also the people that are prospectively moving there.”

But it’s not all doom and gloom for Michigan businesses.

Gardner said part of the problem, especially for students from large universities like MSU and University of Michigan, is recruiting by out-of-state employers.

“A lot of companies come to MSU because they like the work ethic and where these kids are coming from. Most are taking them out of state to work in a certain location for that reason,” Gardner said.

The picture is somewhat different for graduates of primarily “commuter schools” like Oakland and Wayne State universities, mostly because their students are local more often than not and they attract a larger percentage of in-state employers.

Brenda Paine, assistant director of career services at Oakland, said a lot of its graduates are able to stay in state to work.

Oakland is modifying its survey to find more details about where their students are working and how soon after graduation. “Although teaching is tough right now, a large volume of graduate jobs are in health care, engineering, computer, accounting and finance,” Paine noted.

“Our graduates seem to be holding their own,” said Ron Kent, director of career services at Wayne State. He said 87 percent of Wayne State graduates find a job in the state, and he attributes some of that success to the university’s “urban mission.”

“We’re a very large part of the urban community that surrounds us,” said Kent, adding that partnerships with the Detroit Medical Center and Henry Ford Medical Center help with placements.

Spotlight Michigan is sending its survey to other universities to include more variety and gain greater perspectives. This month, the students will travel to Kansas City, Mo.; Urbana-Champaign, Ill.; Madison, Wis.; South Bend, Ind.; and Iowa City, Iowa to find what draws graduates and young entrepreneurs to those areas.

According to Vandermeulen: “We’ll be trying to get the views of both informal and formal networks — like university partnerships, economic development corporations and young professional groups — on what their area has to offer.”

The results of Spotlight’s two years of research, which is funded by the MEDC, are slated to be released April 21.

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