Wisconsin’s brain drain problem

Joseph Schulz, Managing Editor

Wisconsin isn’t a stranger to top 10 lists as it’s routinely one of the top 10 cheese-producing states in the nation, but over the last few decades it has found itself on a list it doesn’t want to be on.

Wisconsin is one of the top 10 states in the United States where college graduates move to another state, and in 1990, 2000 and 2010 it lost more college grads than any other state, according to a 2019 study from Wisconsin Policy Forum.

The report refers to the phenomenon of grads leaving the state as “Wisconsin’s Brain Drain Problem,” and suggests it could lead Wisconsin’s economy to fall behind other Midwestern state economies.

The study focused on people between 31 and 40 years old who earned a bachelor’s degree, and found that 20% of people born in Wisconsin left the state, while less than 10% had moved to the state, for a net brain drain of 10.7%.

Wisconsin’s neighbors Illinois and Minnesota each had net brain gains of 10.4% and 0.9% respectively in 2017, the study noted, citing Wisconsin’s proximity to Chicago and Minneapolis as one of the factors contributing to the brain drain.

The study cited IRS data that found more people have moved out of Wisconsin than to Wisconsin every year for over a decade.

The IRS data showed that between 2006 and 2016, an average of 82,965 people left the state, while an average of 76,560 people moved into the state.

The data included retirees and people too young to have completed their education, but it helps provide context for the scale of migration occurring in Wisconsin.

Finding the most effective strategies for addressing Wisconsin’s brain drain is important for attracting and retaining educated workers, the study noted, adding that educated workers are essential for innovation and growth to ensure the state can compete in an increasingly global and knowledge-based economy.

The state has made efforts in recent years to attract educated workers. One included a $6.8 million marketing campaign in 2018 and 2019 aimed at drawing folks from the Chicago area. Critics argued it was ineffective, and Gov. Tony Evers did not include it in his budget.

The report proposed expanding job opportunities and increasing wages could help the state better attract and retain educated workers as both are key factors determining where graduates choose to live.

There isn’t one clear answer as to why educated workers are leaving Wisconsin as UW Oshkosh alumni cite a variety of factors affecting their decision to leave, ranging from job opportunities to simply wanting to try something new.

Daniel Kobin, content photography manager at Soccer.com, graduated from UWO in 2015. The summer before graduation, he moved to North Carolina to intern at Soccer.com, and after graduating about six months later, Kobin moved to North Carolina and began working full time.

“In the back of my mind I always knew I’d move somewhere else after college,” Kobin said. “I didn’t actively look for a job that was out of state; it just kind of worked out. This was an opportunity and I went for it.”

Jenna Nyberg, marketing assistant at Texas Asphalt Pavement Association, attended UWO from 2012 to 2016 and left for Texas a few months after graduation.

“My senior year I remember promising myself that was going to be my last winter in Wisconsin,” she said. “I was just over the cold and I didn’t want to do it anymore.”

Joe Sobralski, convention guide at The Walt Disney Company, attended UWO from 2013 to 2016 and also interned at Disney in 2014.

Sobralski grew up in Oshkosh and said he knew he wanted to leave Wisconsin when he was 8 years old after a family trip to Chicago. Sobralski loves skyscrapers, other cultures and exotic cuisine, which he said Wisconsin severely lacks.

“Oshkosh has fast food and it has Packer culture — that’s where you drink cheap beer and eat cheese curds,” Sobralski said. “I was not going to have that be the rest of my life.”

Kimberly Lohre, Glacier Club member relations manager, grew up in Illinois and graduated from UWO in 2016. She now lives in Colorado.

When Lohre was in college, she would spend her winter breaks skiing in Colorado, which turned into a desire to leave the Midwest for the mountains of Colorado.

“I think people are looking for that sense of adventure,” she said.

Katie Neumann, account executive at TJM Communications, grew up in Oshkosh and graduated from UWO in 2014. She then applied for a public relations internship with Disney, and after getting the job, she relocated to Orlando, Florida.

“I don’t think I would be where I am today if I hadn’t grown up in Oshkosh,” Neumann said. “I don’t regret leaving, but I don’t regret spending 22 years there either.”

To attract and retain educated workers, Kobin believes Wisconsin needs more diversity in the types of jobs available to college graduates.

“It felt like there was a lot of routes for finance students [and] business students,” he said. “It just didn’t seem like any type of creative industry or the arts had a direct path to areas in Wisconsin.”

Nyberg graduated with a journalism degree and said she struggled to find a job in Wisconsin, which led her to leave the state.

Sobralski doesn’t know if there’s anything Wisconsin can do to make the state more attractive to highly educated workers.

“I think people need to understand that there’s other cultures out there and embrace those other cultures,” Sobralski said.

But all hope for Wisconsin is not lost — Karen Glogauerreich graduated from UWO in 2006, then moved to Germany where she worked in international public relations and marketing. Glogauerreich moved back to the U.S. in 2010 and now lives in Green Bay.

“We returned to Wisconsin with my husband’s career and are enjoying being back near family and friends,” she said. “Wisconsin is beautiful and has a lot to offer. As newcomers to the Green Bay area, we are excitedly exploring this region of the state.”