Local Generation Iowa rep. fights to plug 'braindrain'

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Better-paying jobs are a must, but alternatives to the bar scene may be what retains young Iowa professionals

"Iowa: Living without fear of heights and sharks since 1846."

So proclaims the tongue-in-cheek banner on the new Generation Iowa web site. But to the members of the elite Generation Iowa Commission formed by Governor Chet Culver to shove a plug into the state's "braindrain," the mission is serious.

One of the 15 charter members of the commission appointed in August is Rachel Judisch, a 30-year old speech-language pathologist employed by Sports Rehab and Professional Therapy Associates of Storm Lake.

She and her fellow commissioners were chosen from more than 250 people who applied to serve.

"The legislature and governor's office created Generation Iowa last spring for the purpose of attracting and retaining young adults in Iowa," said Judisch, who has now been chosen vice chair of the new commission.

"It was something that held a lot of interest to me, and when I heard about it, I decided to apply," she said. "My husband owns a business in the area, so we were well aquainted with how difficult it can be to keep bright young people in the state."

The commission is populated by just the kind of people it targets - age 19-35 only. At 30, Rachel would have a chance to seek a second term when her position expires in 2009. "I'll wait and see where life takes me," she says.

Braindrain has been a much-discussed issue in Iowa for decades, and Governor Culver has brought the issue straight to the front burner.

"It's a big issue and then some," Judisch explains. "We know how important it is. We basically came in and started from scratch, and compiled new statistics to work from. The Governor told us basically to create our own playing field - to form ourselves up and go forth."

She said she is very satisifed with how the first six months of the process has gone.

Clearly, their research shows there are two factors preventing Iowa from retaining young adults - the greatest being a financial one.

"Iowa wages lag behind the region significantly. We looked at wages for a number of different professional careers, and Iowa is the second- or third-lowest paying for this part of the country in nearly every one of them," Judisch said.

At the same time, Iowa ranks as one of the highest in average student loan debt.

What's the bottom line? "Your kids can't afford to stay here," she sighs.

The second factor is nearly as important - Iowa lags in cultural opportunities and activvities for young adults.

"We held open forums in several places around the state, and without exception, what these young people were telling us is that Iowa doesn't have the cultural diversity for them," she said.

"The comment that they need something to do as an alternative to hanging out in bars came up over and over again."

Governor Culver, she said, can relate. He likes John Mayer music - but when the pop star ("Waiting on the World to Change") was playing in Des Moines, Culver never heard about the show until it was too late to fit it into his schedule, and he missed his one opportunity.

A perception of a lack of activities isn't the main reason young people leave the state, but often it becomes the "tie-breaker" when they choose between a job and a home in an Iowa city as opposed to one in another state, according to Judisch.

That's where the Generation Iowa website will come in. When it goes fully operational later this month, people will be able to log on to find out about concerts, art, festivals and nightlife all over the state - as well as professional job and internership opportuntiies open to younger Iowas, and rants and photos posted by other people like them from around Iowa.

Visitors can already create their own profiled on GenerationIowa.com, which will become personalized "virutal cubicles."

It is crucial for the effort to succeed, Judisch feels.

"We already are starting to see shortages of available workers in some professions - especially health care. The projections are for a 150,000-worker shortage in Iowa by 2012 - that is very serious." While the governor's office has been supportive and interested in the new commission's recommendations, Judisch says reality has set in for the Generation Iowa commissioners.

"The legislature's priorities had already been set before this, and the state budget is going to be tight. Some things we are recommending might get taken into consideration, but it is very likely that many will get pushed into 2009 because there are no available funds," she says.

Among the recommendations the young commission made to the legislature:

* Create a Higher Education Tax Credit for people who remain in Iowa for the important 10 years following their graduation.

* Targeted student loan repayment programs for graduates in fields that are of special need in Iowa, like health care.

* Adjust Iowa tax incentives to encourage employers to create higher-paying jobs, not more low-paying ones.

* Provide comprehensive student loan counseling.

* Create scholarship programs with residency expectations.

* Eliminate non-compete clauses that do not allow young professionals to establish businesses of their own.

* Create an online statewide job/internship exchange site.

* Expand accelerated career education programs - such as the ACE program at Storm Lake High School.

* Invest in quality of life activities and amenities designed for young people.

* Encourage communities to begin programs to recruit and retain young professionals.

* Encourage local forums so that young people's voices and needs can be heard.

* Develop statewide infrastructure for technology such as high-speed internet access.

* Improve state image through effective marketing.

According to the report, too many young people in and out of the state may describe Iowa as "nothing but corn fields, hog farms, and old white people," when it does in fact have upscale jobs, housing options and activities which are simply not well-known and marketed as attractions.

Following its initial burst of study and proposals, Judisch and the other commissioners are not done - they plan to move into the role of ambassadors for the young adutls to the rest of their state.

"We will help organize and be involved, encouraging things like Young Professionals groups," she said, noting that with the folding of the Jaycees not long ago, Storm Lake has no group especially for young adults at all. A regional Young Professionals group is one possibility.

Culver has praise for his appointees.

"These outstanding young people represent innovation, energy, and enthusiasm. I look forward to the great things they will accomplish," he said.

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