News From Terre Haute, Indiana

Opinion Columns

May 5, 2013

MARK BENNETT: Should I stay or should I go?

Indiana needs to work on its pitch to college grads

TERRE HAUTE — Some have their Bill Clinton-era Cavalier packed (with the trunk bungee-ed shut), apartment cleaned (except for the fridge), and iPhone GPS locked onto the fastest route out of Terre Haute.

Others are staying — until they find a better job, or because they’re starting a career here, or because this town feels like home.

In each case, a new stage of life begins today. Indiana State University and Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College handed out degrees on Saturday afternoon. Ivy Tech does the same on Thursday, followed by Rose-Hulman on May 25. Terre Haute knows the commencement drill. The community began sending new college graduates into the world after The Woods opened in 1840, ISU in 1865, Rose in 1874, and Ivy Tech a century later.

The skill Terre Haute hasn’t mastered is retention — offering grads multiple, sound reasons to start their new lives here.

A fraction chooses to stay. In the case of ISU, 14.8 percent of all bachelor’s degree recipients were earning wages in Vigo County one year after graduating, based on the most recent data (from 2000 to 2005) gathered by a coalition of state education agencies known as the Indiana Workforce Intelligence System. After five years, 11.1 percent still called this county home. The situation is similar in other state college towns — Bloomington, West Lafayette and Muncie.

This “brain drain” isn’t a recent discovery. Its impact on a prime Indiana workplace problem — the “skills gap” — is newly analyzed in a report released this spring by the Ball State University Center for Business and Economic Research. That study, “Labor Markets After the Great Recession,” focuses on the skills gap, which amounts to a mismatch between the skills set of workers and the available jobs.

It amounts to more than retraining and re-educating mid-career guys whose factory jobs disappeared between 2007 to 2011.

The gap also includes the outflow of talent from our colleges to other parts of the country.

No offense, but many Hoosier towns — Terre Haute included — don’t appeal to them. Many balk at developing cultural and recreational amenities that a majority of Baby Boomers would see as extravagant or frivolous. Wages tend to be regarded as rewards rather than enticements, and median incomes in Indiana are 86 percent of the national norm, so they don’t come here for the money. The state struggles with its environmental appearance, relying heavily on volunteers and inmates to clear litter from roadways and public grounds. Lifestyles aren’t the healthiest; only eight states rank lower than Indiana in the Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index, measuring physical, emotional, behavioral and work satisfaction. Roads and highways clearly need deeper investments.

Indiana counters with some significant selling points — relatively lower crime rates (in some places), solid K-12 schools, cheap taxes, and a lean government that its leaders hail as the “fiscal envy of the nation.”

The latest generation of college degree-holders may be impressed, maybe not. They may say, “The state is supposed to balance its budget. So, yeah, good job. But why are the roads so patched up?”

While the politicians extol the corporate sexiness of Indiana’s austere public sector, they also need to honestly address other quality-of-life issues.

Young people are doing the right thing, going to Hoosier colleges, despite the breathtaking cost increases and debt burden. Meanwhile, those in power seem focused on making the state appealing to those college grads’ parents and grandparents. So, with diploma in hand, more than 80 percent of those collegians will flee the borders this weekend. Some may return, maybe in a decade or so. Some won’t.

“Indiana’s human capital challenges cannot be remedied by education alone,” the Ball State skills gap report stated. “We train enough college graduates, but too many of them do not find communities in Indiana that meet their needs and interests, resulting in out-migration of an important source of talent.”

That situation doesn’t inspire envy.

Mark Bennett can be reached at 812-231-4377 or mark.bennett@tribstar.com.

 

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