State is retaining more college graduates than anytime in past 50 years, surveys show
Posted by: Zeke Campfield in In the News
It wasn't until close to graduation that Dallas native Erik Salazar realized Oklahoma was home.
He is among a new demographic of college graduates deciding to start their careers in this state rather than seek career opportunities elsewhere.
"My whole plan was to do my four years and then go back to Texas, because that's where all the jobs are," he said.
For more than three years at the University of Oklahoma, where Salazar studied accounting and finance, he counted the days until his homecoming.
An internship with the Federal Aviation Administration the summer before his senior year changed all that. Eight years later, the 30-year-old owns a home in Oklahoma City and works full-time for the FAA as a financial analyst.
"I didn't even know the FAA was here in Oklahoma City until I did the internship," he said.
Recent surveys indicate more balance exists today between immigration and out-migration of the young and college-educated in Oklahoma than has existed for a half-century.
And though figures from the 2010 census will not be released until next year, interim reports have convinced economic development officials that a vibrant Oklahoma job market is limiting some of the "brain drain" that saw some of the state's best and brightest leaving soon after graduation.
"Overall, we think there's more coming in than are going out," said Drew Dugan, vice president of education and workforce development at the Greater Oklahoma City Chamber of Commerce.
A recent Advertising Age analysis ranked Oklahoma fifth in the nation for its increase in the number of residents ages 25 to 42 since 2000 (12.2 percent), and annual population surveys conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau indicate positive net migration in nearly all the state's demographic subsets.
Oklahoma received 1,008 new households in 2011 compared to 966 households that left the state, according to Atlas Van Lines, which reports annually on migration trends. In 2002, it was 1,053 households out and 820 in.
Census estimates indicate a positive net migration of about 80,000 people ages 20 to 29 in Midwest states in 2011.
Net migration for the same age group in 2001 was negative by 18,000.
Dugan attributes the turnaround to a combination of commercial and cultural revitalization that came to fruition in the middle part of last decade.
The completion of several multimillion capital improvements projects - one of which brought an NBA team to Oklahoma City - complemented growth in the energy and biotechnology sectors to make the region a more attractive destination for young professionals, Dugan said. Oklahoma's unemployment rate has consistently been low compared to that of other states.
I think it's better because our economy is good, we've got good employers that are treating our students right and they're starting to realize there's plenty to do here and a nice quality of life," Dugan said.
For decades, though, young people consistently left the state.
According to an analysis released by the U.S. Census Bureau in mid-April, the outflow of this particular demographic set in Oklahoma for 1965-2000 exceeded the inflow rate by more than 10 percent.
In Oklahoma City, the number of young, single and college-educated residents leaving after graduation was double that of those coming in during that same time period, according to the report. This was despite a mostly positive net migration for the city's population as a whole during that time.
Ben Hardcastle, director of communications for the Oklahoma State Regents for Higher Education, said the state's colleges and universities are reporting successes in their attempt to curb brain drain.
About 70 percent of graduates who received a bachelor's degree from an Oklahoma higher education institute in 2004-05 were employed in Oklahoma after five years, Hardcastle said. That's compared to 59 percent of 2001 graduates who were employed locally in five years, he said.
At Oklahoma State University, 71.5 percent of 2008 graduates remain in Oklahoma, a 7.6 percent increase over 2004 graduates who remained in the state.
Hardcastle said schools have been most effective in placing graduates with Oklahoma employers by developing curricula and programs focused on specific employer needs.
Rose State College, for example, is collaborating with Tinker Air Force Base to develop young professionals for the growing aeronautics industry. Similar programs have been developed for energy, engineering and wind energy careers, Hardcastle said.
"Our institutions are doing a better job of aligning the skill sets that go with that degree to meet the needs of Oklahoma employers," he said.
Still, there will always be plenty of young people who feel the need to leave.
Daniel Harbour, who graduated last year from OSU with a master's degree in business administration, said he had a difficult time finding an in-state job that met his standard of pay.
Financial jobs in Oklahoma seemed to be focused exclusively on accounting or engineering, he said, with not a lot of specialized options available for young graduates. The 23-year-old accepted instead a position as a statistical services analyst at the Federal Reserve Bank in Kansas City.
"It was real hard to find a job that paid what I felt I was worth and had the benefits I wanted," he said. "If you went to one of those career fairs, I would say probably within the 70 percent range are going to be energy jobs, like engineering or IT, or something one of the big energy companies would want."