Casey Sperzel is Minnesotan through and through.
She grew up in Maple Grove, went to college at the University of Minnesota, and lived in both St. Paul and Minneapolis. But when the 27-year-old met with a job recruiter last year, she was set on the Pacific Northwest.
“I don’t think I’ll be back,” said Sperzel, now with a Seattle ad agency.
States are scrambling for young professionals like Sperzel to help offset the wave of baby boomer retirements. Minnesota is falling behind in that competition.
The state has lost residents every year since 2002, with young adults most eager to leave. About 9,300 18- to 24-year-olds move out annually, according to the Minnesota State Demographic Center.
That — combined with a declining birthrate and an aging population — has demographers and civic leaders sounding alarms.
“It’s a lapel-grabbing moment,” said Peter Frosch, a vice president at Greater MSP, a St. Paul nonprofit focused on economic development in the Twin Cities metro.
Over the next 15 years, more Minnesotans will retire than in the past six decades combined, resulting in a labor shortage that is unprecedented since the end of World War II. By 2020, the state is forecast to have a shortage of more than 100,000 workers.
“Even if every single child born in this region and every single adult here today is fully trained up to their potential — and stays here — we still are far short of what we need,” Frosch said.
Marketing their message
Young adults tend to be the most mobile group, because they’re going to college, looking for jobs, seeking partners. By the time they reach their mid-30s, they tend to settle down.
States that can draw and retain young, skilled workers reap the benefits — a high-quality workforce, stronger consumer spending and more robust tax rolls to fund schools, parks and police, said Minnesota State Demographer Susan Brower.
Despite a diversified economy and low unemployment, and enough brew pubs, music venues and bike paths to be a hipster haven, Minnesota is losing young people.
Each year, about 21,000 students ages 18 to 24 come to Minnesota to go to college or graduate school, but more than 29,000 leave. Because so many don’t return after graduating, Brower advocates finding “ways not to lose them in the first place.”
Other states have already come to that conclusion and have responded by aggressively marketing to young people promoting their high-paying jobs, creative cultures and natural amenities.
Denver, San Diego, Seattle and Austin, Texas, have become magnets for millennials. But even former rust-belt cities such as Pittsburgh, Cleveland and Detroit are having more success than Minnesota in courting out-of-state college students and young professionals.
Ryan Houts, 35, moved from Minneapolis to Boston two years ago with his wife and young children. Still, he bristles over what he sees as an East Coast “bias against people from the Midwest.”
“I’m constantly breaking their perspective and complete lack of knowledge … that we’re simpler, that we’re easily satisfied and don’t have high ambitions,” he said. “It makes me wonder why they don’t realize how great it is. Or maybe other cities have done a great job of making their brand super appealing, like Portland and Austin.”
Each year, 113,000 people leave Minnesota and go to another state, while about 101,000 move here from another state. Were it not for strong international migration, Minnesota’s overall population would be falling.
About a third of Minnesota’s “leavers” tend to move to the border states of Wisconsin (16 percent), North Dakota (12 percent) and Iowa (6 percent).
Count Brigitte Pobuda, 27, in that pack.
She grew up in Andover and studied interior design at the University of Wisconsin-Stout. But after a stint in Arizona, she settled with her boyfriend in Fargo, N.D. Rent is more affordable, she said, and there’s plenty of work. She’s laying down roots.
“I don’t mind thinking Fargo is forever,” she said.
Attacking the problem
To address the looming shortage of workers, Greater MSP has assembled a “talent task force” of Fortune 500 CEOs and up-and-coming professionals. It plans to roll out a marketing campaign to trumpet the state’s strengths later this year. The campaign could include a “boomerang” strategy to try to convince former residents to return, or a “trailing spouse” initiative to promote the wide range of job opportunities. Selling the outdoors, nightlife, food and entertainment will be an essential part of the campaign.
“Jobs are the beginning of the conversation,” Frosch said. “They don’t close the deal.”
But Jim Russell believes the focus on losing local talent to other states is misguided.
Russell, a geographer at Cleveland State University, studies the relationship between migration and economic development. To him, “it’s a faulty reaction that if they’re leaving, we’re doing something wrong,” he said. “People who are migrating away to other states are moving to something, not away.”
Rather than just trying to stop people from leaving, Russell said Minnesota should also provide more and better opportunities for all workers, including the rich array of immigrants, who have already proved their entrepreneurial mettle.
Brower also points out that more than 100,000 people move to Minnesota each year. Understanding why they come has the potential to “change the migration equation,” she said.
Stories like that of 28-year-old Lindsey Edson offer hope.
After living in New York City for six years, Edson moved back to Minneapolis. She’d grown up in New Richmond, Wis., and found she missed the “rustic lumberjack Midwestern man,” as well as bike paths, greenways, parks and lakes.
“Minnesota is the best kept secret,” she said.
That’s part of the problem.