Reversing the brain drain in Michiana

Author: Kevin Allen, South Bend Tribune

Kevin O'Keeffe will graduate today with a master's degree from the University of Notre Dame and a world of opportunity ahead of him.

And he's not even leaving South Bend.

The 25-year-old — a native of Ireland who came to Notre Dame for the university's Engineering, Science & Technology Entrepreneurship Excellence Master's, or ESTEEM, program — is staying in town to help run SlipStream Projects. The young company's niche is in developing better technologies for emergency power, such as a new device to jumpstart heavy-truck engines.

"We're starting to grind the gears on commercializing the technologies and bringing them to market," he said.

It's just the kind of innovative challenge O'Keeffe wanted, and it's just the kind of story local business and government leaders hope will become more common around here.

Officials in the Michiana region and the rest of the Midwest have fretted for years about "brain drain" — the phenomenon of college graduates moving away for jobs in places with hipper neighborhoods, mountain views or at least more sunshine. Thousands of students graduate from local colleges every spring, and each year the commencement season raises the question of how much stronger the region's economy would be if more of those graduates stayed here.

After all, in the modern economy, a community's growth potential is usually determined by the number of educated people who live there.

The six-county Michiana region is below-average in the percentage of residents who are at least 25 years old and have a bachelor's degree. St. Joseph County — where 26.5 percent of adults have a degree — has the most-educated population in the region but is still below the national average of 28.8 percent.

Many programs have been designed in an effort to slow or reverse brain drain, and urban planners have emphasized a need for more walkable developments and downtown amenities that appeal to young people.

But a job is still the biggest factor that determines where a young professional will live.

There is anecdotal evidence that young college graduates are beginning to look more favorably at living in the South Bend area, and the main reason for the change appears to be that the area is creating different types of jobs that weren't available here even a few years ago.

The build-out of the St. Joe Valley Metronet, a regional broadband network, along with the development of Innovation Park at Notre Dame and Ignition Park in South Bend as well as the university's greater concentration on commercializing research have helped plant more technology companies in the area.

"Those companies are creating new ideas and new reasons for people to be in South Bend," said Scott Ford, executive director of the city's Department of Community Investment.

Other new initiatives have helped, too.

One example is enFocus, a fellowship program founded in 2012 to connect recent graduates with projects at local organizations. Another is internSJC, which the St. Joseph County Chamber of Commerce started in 2013 to make students and employers more aware of internship opportunities available in the area.

Andrew Wiand, executive director of enFocus, said the program had 16 fellows during its first two years, and 12 of them stayed in the South Bend area after their fellowships were completed. Another seven fellows have been participating in the program during the past year.

Wiand, a 26-year-old Notre Dame alumnus who grew up in South Bend, believes perceptions of the area are beginning to change among young people.

"I think we’re on an upswing," he said, "and there will be a tipping point."

Of course, while a lot of attention is paid to what factors might lead a person from outside the area to move here, the largest potential brain gain lies in educating the people who already live here.

Wiand said about 2 percent of Notre Dame students, many of whom are from other parts of the country, stay in the South Bend area after graduation.

More than 70 percent of Indiana University South Bend's alumni, on the other hand, remain in this area to live and work after they graduate. Chancellor Terry Allison said the university has worked with employers to prepare students for growth industries with programs in computer science and informatics.

And one aspect of the attraction of working in South Bend, as opposed to Silicon Valley or places with more-established tech scenes, is that people can feel they are part of building something new.

"There's a real sense of pride that this sort of thing is happening here," O'Keeffe said. "Everybody wants to see South Bend come back."