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Brain Drain 1: New York tries to cling to young professionals

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Attracting and keeping young people in upstate New York has long been a preoccupation of policy makers. But the hand-wringing about "brain drain" hasn't stopped the region from getting older. In part one of a four part series from the Innovation Trail, Zack Seward takes a look at the demographics of upstate New York as it tries to hang on to its young professionals.

This story is one of four reported by the Innovation Trail, about the challenge of keeping young people in upstate New York. Support for the Innovation Trail comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

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David Sommerstein
Reporter/ Producer

Three years ago, the founders of Rochester's newest young professionals group were getting ready to graduate from a local college.

The Rochester-area natives had done the internships, joined the student chapter of the professional society and were lining up jobs for after graduation.

Now, as young PR professionals, the long-time friends are launching a group of their own. It's one of about 40 young professionals groups in Rochester.

The three PR musketeers say Rochester's 20-minutes-to-anywhere size and the presence of a handful of corporate giants, makes the city a great place to start a career. Here's Kristy Guerra:

GUERRA: You can start being a big fish in a little pond rather than being a little fish in a big pond. You're able to touch more things, you're able to meet more people and do many different things because there's not as many people that you're competing with.

In a region that's trying to rebound from decades of steady economic decline, Paula Zimmer, Kristy Guerra and Shannon Lappin stand out as positive outliers among negative trend lines.

Newly released Census data shows upstate experiencing relative decline over the last decade, even with a slight uptick in population. Aside from the Capital Region, upstate cities were especially hard hit.

Buffalo shed more than a tenth of its residents; Rochester shrunk by four percent; and the surprise bright spot was Binghamton, which only lost four people.

DEITZ: It sort of naturally leads to a conclusion that those people must be leaving the area.

Richard Deitz is an economist at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. He says it's actually more complicated that people just up and leaving.

A few years back, the Buffalo-based Deitz crunched the numbers on the 2000 Census to figure out why upstate's population growth was so anemic.

He lopped off the 13 counties in the New York City area, considered upstate a state of its own and looked specifically at the constant churn of working-age people migrating to and from the region.

DEITZ: So what I found was that when you look at the out-migration rate, upstate New York would rank right about in the middle compared to all other states. But when you look at the in-migration rates, upstate New York was second to last.

Deitz concluded that upstate wasn't suffering from a high amount of "brain drain," it was actually suffering from a very low amount of "brain gain."

DEITZ: What's really going on is that you've got people, especially the young and educated, are footloose and they're shuffling around and they get their degrees and they're thinking where to get their first job, or maybe after their first job their second job, and they're looking across the country, they can go anywhere they want.

BERUBE: Upstate New York is definitely one of the slower growing regions of the country.

Alan Berube, a senior fellow at the Brookings think tank in Washington, says upstate is one of the regions that footloose young workers are not flocking to. Instead, they tend to go to larger places with growing job opportunities and warmer climates.

Places very much unlike, say, Buffalo.

But Berube says the news isn't all bad. In a big demographic report that Brookings put out last year, Rochester and Syracuse were identified as what Brookings called "skilled anchors."

BERUBE: You've got a lot of highly skilled, highly educated workers in your region. That doesn't mean that that's going to translate into rapid population growth anytime soon, but frankly that's the most important thing for the prosperity of your region over the medium and long run.

In the short run, however, economists say upstate is having a hard time attracting highly-mobile, highly-skilled young workers, even if it's OK at hanging on to some of its homegrown talent.

Which brings us back to the young PR professionals of Rochester: in about a month, a third of the three musketeers is moving out of the region to take a job in Detroit.

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