Wisconsin’s ‘Brain Drain’

Source: UW-Madison photo library

By Carter Thomson

The divide between rural and urban job opportunities has become more prevalent in recent years and has been a major discussion in many political debates. The term “brain drain” is being used to describe both companies and skilled labor moving from rural to urban populations.

Urban America has often been viewed as wealthier, more educated and younger, while rural areas have been seen as poverty-stricken, older and having a more blue collared work ethic. These stereotypes can lead companies to certain perceptions and can influence their decision-making to either start a business or grow an existing one. In Wisconsin, it has generally led to new jobs being grown in urban populations instead of rural areas.

WisContext — U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis

Professor David Hansen, an economics professor at the University of Wisconsin, said people with similar interests cluster together, forming urban communities.

“People can get together in these big cities and create together. Once you get a few people that like doing something or know how to do something, you are going tend to get more people who do the same thing,” Hansen said. This is one way that urban communities are formed initially and continue to grow.

For young rural students, it can be difficult to find jobs or internships near their homes without having to move away for an extended period of time. Rural communities have been known to be more entrepreneurial but there usually aren’t a lot of opportunities for young inexperienced workers to enter those fields.

Ryan Getka, UW-Madison student majoring in statistics with a certificate
in computer science, is from a small town outside of Kenosha, Wisconsin.

“It can be challenging sometimes finding a job that is worthwhile towards my major or career. I can’t really afford to move away to a big city for an entire summer and coming from a smaller city there aren’t a ton of options available to me. I’m a little limited when it comes to job opportunities,” Getka said.

Kobe Schmitz, an engineering student at UW-Madison, lives just outside Oshkosh. “I think I’ll probably have to move to a bigger city to find a job once I graduate. That’s where more opportunities are, which makes it a little easier to find a job too,” Kobe said.

This has become a problem for rural areas, as skilled workers and younger generations leave their homes and move into larger, urban cities in what has been called a “brain drain” of workers. Webster’s dictionary defines the term as “the departure of educated or professional people from one country, economic sector, or field for another.”

Professor Hansen said many people prefer to live in urban areas because of the amenities that can be offered. Companies also like urban areas because it keeps them close to other companies that may be doing similar work. The shrink of rural populations could have economic consequences throughout the area, however.

“Once young people that have higher education or some kind of skill — doesn’t have to be formal education — start moving out because if the job opportunities are better somewhere else then you see it starts to hollow out the community,” Hansen said.

These rural communities then may not be able to sustain certain things that these areas need. Schools are one example, as skilled teachers become scarce and younger families stop choosing to raise their kids in these areas.

“Once an area starts to look worse, once it starts to look rundown it’s going to be the same effect of people wanting to move to cities but in reverse. People won’t want to move to these areas if they don’t look appealing,” Hansen said.

Increasing prevalence and accessibility of broadband internet could change the outcome of the brain drain. It could allow higher skilled occupations that aren’t hands on to work remotely as long as they have access to the internet.

“Being able to highlight the benefits of small-town life might be a good way to help slow the trend of jobs moving away. As long as they have electricity and internet connection, they should be able to work from anywhere if that is what they want,” Hansen said.

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