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‘Brain drain’ persists in Arizona

Tucson is known for its syrupy sweet Eegee’s slushies, superior Mexican food and for many years, it’s been haunted by stories of “brain drain” – that is, University of Arizona graduates leaving to work elsewhere after they get their degrees.

The theme remains true. According to a 2016 report from the Arizona Board of Regents, a smaller percentage of Arizona residents who graduated with bachelor’s degrees from UA were employed in Arizona in 2015 compared to the number of graduates from the state’s other two public universities who stayed to work in the state.

George W. Hammond, Economic and Business Research Center Director at UA and an expert in regional economics, said Tucson and its surrounding area is above average when it comes to highly educated retired communities, but not for fresh grads.

“If you look at the younger ages who are fully participating in the labor market, we’re falling behind,” he said. “We need to attract and retain a lot more college graduates than we are and have been.”

Brain drain is considered as a two-pronged issue: education must fit the needs of state industries, while industries, in turn, need to utilize state grad talent. But Tucson is only one geographic contributor to Arizona’s statewide brain drain problem that is centered around age.

Overall, only 27.5 of Arizonans have a bachelor’s degree or higher, falling below the national average of 30.6 percent, according to the Census Bureau.

In September, a group of business, educational and philanthropic leaders announced Achieve60AZ, an initiative to increase the number of Arizonans ages 25 to 64 that earn a job certification or college degree from 42 to 60 percent by 2030.

In tandem with that goal, the Arizona Board of Regents, which governs Arizona’s three public universities, has held talks with business leaders of major local industries such as hospitals, mining, teaching and technology to better tailor Arizona education to the industries’ needs, and to encourage those businesses to hire Arizona graduates.

Other factors contribute to Arizona’s low education numbers, including immigrants coming to the state with a high school diploma or less, and the extremely low education of some rural counties, notably La Paz, Apache and Greenlee along the state’s edges.

But the state grapples with the problem of young, educated talent leaving Arizona, according to a May 2016 report from ASU’s W. P. Carey School of Business.

Older adults moving to the state boost its overall educational levels, but Arizona “suffers from the migration of younger adults,” the report said, and “few of the migrating older adults are active in the Arizona workforce.”

In Tucson’s Pima County, the retiree community has more bachelor’s degrees than the national average, but only 26.6 percent of people 25 to 34 in the county have four-year degrees, according Census data. In Maricopa County, where Arizona State University is located, 29.6 percent of that same age group have bachelor’s degrees or higher, and that number is 33.2 percent for Northern Arizona University’s Coconino County.

But the problem in Tucson has shown considerable improvement. The ABOR report showed that though 37.9 percent of 1990 UA grads were working in Arizona in 2015, 63.6 percent of the class of 2014 were still in the state. Its percentage remains under NAU’s 75.3 percent and ASU’s 75.1 percent. Both of those school are also improving.

UA has the highest portion of students coming from out of state, at 42.5 percent, who may return to their homes after graduating, according to ABOR.

Giving Tucson a chance

Angelina Elias, who spent part of her childhood in Tucson and is graduating from the Uin May, has decided to stay to save up funds and get more practical experience.

As a film and television major she was drawn to Los Angeles, where many of her peers will move to try to break into the industry the old-fashioned way. But after much deliberation, she took a marketing management job for the Downtown Tucson Partnership, which is working to promote Tucson’s downtown area to future residents and businesses.

“For me, I really wanted to save money since LA is very expensive,” she said. “So my decision is to stay in Tucson for a year, save up, have this great job that’s going to look really good on my resume as well as get experience in the real world in case film doesn’t work out, because the job security is terrible, so it was definitely a practical decision.”

Elias is passionate about her choice and wants others her age to consider giving the city more consideration.

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“Tucson is great, I think people should give it a chance instead of just saying, ‘I want to leave,’” she said. “They should try to find what specifically they like about it and try to bring more of that into what they’re doing. … I do believe when given the chance, Tucson can grow to be more than just these stigmas and stereotypes of the ‘Dirty T.’”

Nick Ross, an economic development analyst at the city of Tucson’s Office of Economic Initiatives, said the city is working hard to make Tucson more attractive to young people and businesses.

“Even 3, 4 years ago our downtown was nothing like what is now,” he said, adding that Tucson’s new streetcar, the Sun Link, which opened in 2014, has helped make the downtown area more accessible. “Our downtown is very close to the university and very close to a lot of student housing in particular and the re-emergence of our downtown has been great for that demographic.”

Raytheon, a defense contractor, is one of Tucson’s largest employers of graduating engineering students, and Tucson has many defense and aerospace employers. It’s also well-equipped in the optics industry as well as renewable energy and mining.

Hexagon Mining, an international mining tech firm, announced in March that it would expand its operations in Tucson and relocate downtown from a different location in the city. Caterpillar Inc., the construction and mining equipment manufacturing company, also announced last year that it would relocate its regional headquarters to Tucson, and Pima County is expanding its Aerospace, Defense and Technology Research and Business Park.

“Raytheon hires a ton of U of A grads, that whole sector has a lot of opportunity for U of A grads, especially in engineering fields,” Ross said.

“It’s some of the other (industries) we’re not doing so well in.”

Lingering issues

Nichole Peterson, a graphics design major and Scottsdale native, said she’s leaving Tucson for Los Angeles in May to find work in her field. She said she really never considered staying in Tucson because most of her friends are leaving and she doesn’t see many young people living in the city who aren’t students.

“Especially for my major I don’t know if there’s much to do here for that so that’s another reason why I don’t want to stay,” she said. “There is a good amount of art in Tucson. But advertising, that’s what I want to do, it’s more of a big city type of thing and Tucson is not necessarily a big city.”

Susan Kaleita, the director of Alumni Career and Professional Development Lab at UA Career Services, said although Tucson is a hub for certain career fields, there are opportunities for students with other skill sets, too.

“I think there are a lot of small companies and startup companies that are in a wide variety of industries,” she said. “They don’t get the same amount of press because they’re not hiring in the hundreds.”

She said keeping UA grads in Tucson isn’t a stated goal of her department, but it happens often.

“We support students in their career development in connecting them to career opportunities regardless of where they’re hoping to locate and they make career decision based on a wide variety of factors,” she said. “But we work with a large number of local employers to connect them with graduate talent from the U of A.”

Another reason Tucson’s education levels could be lower than other areas in the state could be its high percentage of Hispanics, who traditionally have lower average educational attainment levels, Hammond, the economics professor, said. Of the three major counties containing Arizona’s public universities, Pima County is the most Hispanic at 36.4 percent, compared to Maricopa County at 30.5 percent and Coconino at 13.9 percent.

A 2016 Census report found Hispanics are least likely to have earned a bachelor’s degree or higher when compared to whites, African-Americans and Asian-Americans.

Michael Varney, president and CEO of the Tucson Metro Chamber, an advocacy group representing 1,500 of Tucson’s businesses, said these statistics have not gone unnoticed in Tucson. He said the “brain drain” issue can be tackled from two directions: attracting more businesses to the area as well as making sure students’ education matches the needs of the market.

“We obviously have a lot of work to do in educating Hispanic citizens,” he said. “They grossly underperform in national averages down the line. It’s pretty obvious we have to get younger people in our community colleges to get degrees and we’re working on that here in a number of ways.” relies on contributions from our readers to support our reporting on Tucson's civic affairs. Donate to today!
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Varney highlighted the Earn to Learn program, a statewide scholarship opportunity for kids with good grades whose families make 200 percent of the federal poverty line or less, many of whom are Hispanic.

If they can raise $500 themselves, they will receive $4,000 in grant money each year they’re enrolled in one of Arizona’s public universities, and will eventually be matched with an internship with a state employer. The Tucson Metro Chamber helps that matching process, in hopes that these students will go from interns to employees.

“We expect a high percentage of them to find employment close to home and stay here and apply the knowledge they learned and apply it to local companies,” he said. “The problem with finding qualified talent is not unique to Tucson, Arizona. This is a problem in every community across the United States. … It’s definitely a seller’s market when it comes to qualified talent and we just need to get more kids in the education pipeline.”

ABOR President Eileen Klein said the fact that many of Arizona’s college graduates leave the state for work shows how competitive they are on a national scale, but public universities are working to create more college-to-job pipelines in the state.

Although a slim majority of Arizona resident graduates stay in the state after they graduate, ABOR data found that after five years after graduation, more begin to leave.

“It’s important for us to work with those employers here to make sure that our students don’t have to move out of Arizona to move up the career ladder and that’s just become a bigger focus for the business community and for the universities as well,” Klein said. “The good news for students obviously is that people are recognizing the quality of the education that they’re getting and so it’s making our students very competitive. We want to use that … to have that become an attraction for Arizona so that companies will begin locating here because they recognize the rich resource that we have in our Arizona students.”

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Emily L. Mahoney/Cronkite News

Although some students choose to stay in Tucson after graduation, a higher percentage choose to leave because there isn’t enough opportunity in their particular industries.