State looks to turn trickle of returning college grads into a flood

Laura VanHolstyn graduated from Michigan State University with a degree in communications in 2009, a year in which the state’s jobless rate averaged 13.9 percent.

“I went on interview after interview,” said VanHolstyn, who is from Rockford, located north of Grand Rapids. “I was up against people with way more experience who were willing to take $10 an hour and no benefits.”

VanHolstyn, 25, packed up and left Michigan for a job in Madison, Wis., But she soon relocated to Chicago, where she works as the communications director for a startup company that specializes in finding young talent for employers.

She doesn’t know if she’ll ever move back to Michigan.

“That conversation happens every time I come home,” VanHolstyn said. “It would be nice to be around family when I start my own family.”

But VanHolstyn says Chicago offers her a lot, including good public transportation, lots of restaurants and entertainment, progressive social values and a rewarding career.

“It wasn’t that I wanted to leave Michigan,” she said. “I just couldn’t have a career there. I still don’t feel there is as much opportunity in Michigan,” even though the economy is improving.

Michigan seeks lures for talent

VanHolstyn is the kind of young professional Gov. Rick Snyder’s administration is trying to retain and attract as he works to “reinvent” Michigan’s economy.

“Today, talent has surpassed other resources as the driver of economic growth,” Snyder said in a 2011 special message to the Legislature.

The governor cited a recent Georgetown University study that found 62 percent of Michigan jobs will require a post-secondary credential. Only about 35 percent of Michigan adults hold one now.

“We have a lot of work to do to develop a talent pool that will satisfy the needs of the new economy,” Snyder said.

A 2008 survey of more than 5,000 recent graduates from Michigan’s 15 public universities found that 49 percent left the state within a year of graduating.

The Detroit Regional Chamber is conducting a new survey of where new Michigan college graduates are going. It expects to release survey results in a few weeks.

In an attempt to combat that brain drain, the Michigan Economic Development Corp. has recently unveiled a number of programs designed to retain and attract young talent.

Among them are MichAGAIN, a program that reaches out to young former Michigan residents at events around the country, such as SXSW, an annual film, technology and music festival in Austin, Texas.

Using university and business partners, MichAGAIN recruiters promote career opportunities to lure young talent back to Michigan.

Another program, LiveWorkDetroit!, showcases the city as an emerging urban center providing opportunities in creative and technology careers for young professionals and recent college graduates.

“We’ve brought almost 2,000 college students to Detroit for tours and career exploration,” said Amy Cell, senior vice president for talent development at the MEDC.

The state agency also holds similar events in smaller cities around the state.

But University of Michigan President Mary Sue Coleman recently said state universities and employers must do more to inform college students about job opportunities in Michigan.

"Shame on us if we can't convince the students to come and look at the opportunities in Michigan. We don’t do enough of that,” she said in a speech to the Detroit-based professional women’s group Inforum, according to

Social issues affect choices

Some young college graduates say it will be hard for Detroit and the rest of Michigan to compete with places such as Chicago and Boston.

Courtney Vaught, 27, and her fiancé moved to Boston in 2010 after they were both laid off from their jobs in the Detroit area. They came back last year when her soon-to-be husband was promoted to a position here.

She described her return to Michigan as a “bit of a bummer,” although she quickly found a public relations job that she enjoys and likes living in Royal Oak, a Detroit suburb with a lively downtown.

“Boston is an awesome city,” she said. “It’s super-expensive, but it’s worth it. I didn’t need a car. The convenience of public transportation was amazing to me.”

VanHolstyn said Chicago’s extensive public transportation system also is a major selling point for her.

“When I come back to Michigan, I have to get in car and try to find a place to park when I go out,” she said. “It’s definitely hard to make that adjustment. I love public transportation.”

Detroit, the home of the domestic auto industry, also has long been known as the only major city in America without a viable public transportation system.

It took decades just for state government to approve a regional transportation authority for Detroit. The authority was finally passed by the Legislature and signed into law by Snyder in December.

Vaught and VanHolstyn also said the Legislature’s history of passing social legislation, such as denying benefits to the same-sex partners of public employees and narrowing options for abortion, doesn’t play well with young professionals.

Illinois has a domestic partnership law that requires some private-sector employers to offer health insurance benefits to the same- or opposite-sex partners of employees.

And Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn said he will sign a same-sex marriage bill pending in that state’s Legislature.

Michigan voters approved a constitutional amendment in 2004 that banned gay marriage and civil unions.

“It’s not the reason I moved there, but there’s a different culture and level of acceptance in Chicago,” VanHolstyn said. “The domestic partnership law is a big benefit of living there.”

Vaught echoed VanHolstyn, saying many in her generation want to live in a “cool city” that accepts everyone.

“Just let people do what makes them happy,” she said.

Michigan’s Great Lakes and its natural beauty do lure some young people home.Bradley Matson, 28, and his wife, Kirsten, left Michigan for the warm temperatures of Arizona in 2010. But they soon found they missed the water and four seasons of Michigan, and moved back to Matson’s hometown of Traverse City last year.

The Matsons started their own business, called CoWharf, which provides space for freelancers to work, exchange ideas, network and “join forces to change the world” in Northern Michigan.

Quality of place is particularly important to young professionals like Matson.

“We live in downtown Traverse City,” Bradley Matson said. “It’s a great benefit because you can walk everywhere. Traverse City has become kind of a foodie town. It’s got great restaurants. We really like that.”

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Thu, 03/14/2013 - 8:48am
I love the physical beauty of this state, however the increasingly conservative social and political climate in much of the state makes me ashamed of the image our state is projecting. That tone will continue to drive our youth out of the state and will discourage youth from outside of Michigan from considering moving here. We need to work on adopting and projecting a more moderate, open minded environment in Michigan!
Thu, 03/14/2013 - 5:54pm
Agreed! If we could sell my house for an equitable price we'd be gone. I have two advanced degrees and my wife has a graduate degree from Harvard and we're still seeking work in our fields here in Grand Rapids. Bright, young college grads are not seeking, conservative, intolerant and segregated communities that are the fabric of West Michigan. The side of Michigan that continually votes the same as the former slave states. Grand Rapids residents voted 40 years after Ann Arbor to decriminalize pot and young people are still being arrested for this infraction in Grand Rapids. Wages are going down and Synder's anti-union laws won't help to increase them. The urban, "socialist" states/cities are driving creativity and employment in this country (i.e. Silicon Valley, Chicago, New York, Boston etc.). Grand Rapids with its cloudy weather and rural views will not be a magnet for young except for its lower cost of living.
Jeffrey Poling
Thu, 03/14/2013 - 10:32am
Gov. Snyder laments Michigan's 'Brain Drain' but he had the solution right in his hands and he killed it. Few industries offer a combination of opportunity, creativity and diversity as the movie industry. Sit through a movie to the very end and read the never ending scroll of credits; those are all jobs - creative jobs, jobs covering the entire spectrum of employment, jobs that appeal to our educated youth and that not only will keep them here but will bring outside talent here. Besides the movie industry itself, industries that support the movie industry directly benefit - hotels, electricians, construction, art and advertising, university film degrees to name a few. Michigan officials have often expressed the need to diversify our economy from the cyclical nature of the auto industry. The movie industry would certainly accomplish that. It would also provide a means to promote our state just as California constantly promotes themselves by using movies as thinly disguised California travelogues. The flow of Michigan taxpayer dollars to California has been the reason given to kill the Michigan film credits while the revenue brought into the state is overlooked. If it is too expensive then fix it - don't kill it. We can learn. We can establish our own movie industry. We don't need California.
Mon, 03/18/2013 - 9:01am
Sun, 03/17/2013 - 8:54am
I called 700 high school graduates 6 years after leaving high school in Northeast Mi. 30% had earned a college degree. 50% were not living in Northeast MI., 20% of the graduates were not living in Mi. 30% were married, and many said they would love to be back here but there weren't the jobs here or the pay they were earning. None in Mi. has contacted more graduates than I have. Over 18000 but alot of people out here just arent listening and too many people far removed from reality are making the decisions that affect our young people. Ron
Tue, 03/19/2013 - 4:58pm
You have a state legislature and a Governor that is, more or less, at war with its large, public universities. I don't think that will help the "brain drain" much.
Sun, 04/07/2013 - 8:39pm
One thing not mentioned is that many high tech jobs in Michigan offer much lower pay for comparable postions in other states, I believe this has a major effect on the number of college grads leaving Michigan. Employers are trying to hire people on the cheap and it is not working to their benefit if they can't fill the positions.