College grads: We left Michigan for jobs. Moved here for family, nature
- Michigan population is stagnating in part because of the net loss of college graduates
- In an average year, about 9,000 residents with bachelor’s degrees or higher move out of the state
- Grads who have moved say Michigan can do a better job promoting itself. Tax reform could help, too
Two days after graduating from Michigan State University in May, Sophia Yee had put away her Spartan green cap and gown and pulled out two black storage tubs she’d purchased at Home Depot near her home in Oakland County.
The lifelong Michigander, with a freshly minted bachelor’s degree in supply chain management, will move to Arizona in early July to take a job with Intel.
“It was a pretty easy choice for me,” Yee said. “I knew I wanted to go into the tech industry. And Intel is a great name to have on your resume.”
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Two of her friends who graduated with her from MSU are moving to Texas for jobs, three are headed to Wisconsin, and “a bunch” are on their way to Chicago.
Yee said she can think of only one friend who is staying in Michigan.
The loss of young adults, particularly college grads like Yee, is one reason Michigan ranks 49th among states in population growth since 1990. Demographers project the state will drop in population in the coming decades.
Michigan’s sluggish growth is a big part of the reason businesses can’t find enough workers, and why some companies hesitate to set up shop here because of fears they won’t find qualified employees. It’s the reason Michigan is losing seats in Congress and why wages and housing values have declined in comparison to other states.
Last month, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer announced during the Mackinac Policy Conference the formation of a “Growing Michigan Together Council,” made up of business, labor and education leaders, to help develop a battle plan to boost population.
Key to the success of those efforts: figuring out why young adults like Sophia Yee leave Michigan, and what might lure others to put down stakes here.
Bridge spoke to eight college graduates about their decisions to stay or leave or, in one case, to move to Michigan from elsewhere. The people interviewed ranged from Yee, the new graduate, to an expectant mother, a retiree, and a few members of the Legislature who have a stake (and some strong thoughts on) population policies.
Some left and came back; one stayed in Michigan though her children have left. All offered insights into the fight Michigan faces to increase population, and glimpses of possible solutions.
For Yee, the choice to leave was simple. She interned with Intel, the semiconductor chip producer, in Chandler, Ariz. last summer. She liked the company and the state.
“I enjoyed living in Arizona,” she said. “I had never visited. I love to hike. I had the time of my life over the summer.”
She said her parents, who live in Troy, were resigned to her moving — her sister had made a home in Chicago after she graduated.
Between 2017 and 2021, an average of 9,000 Michiganders with bachelor’s degrees or higher left the state every year, according to Census data from the American Community Survey. That’s the equivalent of a 25-student college classroom picking up their backpacks and leaving Michigan every day for five years.
People with degrees moving into the state offset some of that, but the total net loss of 6,000 college grads over those five years is ninth-worst in the nation.
Yee leased a GMC Acadia, built in Lansing, to pack for her move to an apartment in Scottsdale. She plans to hook a U-Haul trailer behind the seven-seat SUV for more stuff.
“I knew I wanted to leave Michigan — I’m not a big fan of the Midwest,” Yee said.
Could she picture herself moving back someday?
Not really, she said. And now that two of their children are living outside the state (a third works for the University of Michigan), Yee’s parents are talking about moving as well, once they reach retirement.
“The most I would miss are the people,” Yee said. “But then a lot of the people are leaving too so that doesn’t make it too difficult for me.”
An urban planner flees
Paul Jones III feels he put up a good fight.
The Detroit resident earned a bachelor’s degree from Wayne State University and a master’s in urban planning from the University of Michigan, and stayed in his hometown while many of his friends and classmates fled Michigan for jobs.
“I was showing up at (Detroit) City Council meetings making public comments, and volunteering around the city,” Jones said. “It was a lot of weight, especially when all your peers are leaving.”
Only 55 percent of voters between the age of 18 and 29 believe they will still be living in Michigan a decade from now, according to a statewide public opinion survey by Glengariff, Inc.
Last week, Jones posted a photo of himself on Twitter beside a U-Haul trailer, writing, “the official vehicle of young professionals from Michigan.”
The 25-year-old has a new job as a community planner with the U.S. Department of Transportation. He had the option of working remotely from Detroit. Jones chose to move to Boston instead, where he can commute to the office where his program is headquartered.
“There were a lot of tearful goodbyes,” Jones said. “I don’t think Michigan is very open to young people’s ideas.”
Jones recalled packing his bags to move during the recent Mackinac Policy Conference (a statewide event hosted by the Detroit Regional Chamber). “And I was watching all these people three times my age talking about why young people are leaving,” Jones said, laughing. “Our voices aren’t valued.”
The commission formed to study Michigan’s population problems, announced at that conference, includes 28 members — but only one of them is mandated to be under the age of 25.
Jones said if Michigan is serious about trying to retain and attract young people, a good place to start would be talking to young adults who’ve become frustrated and moved away.
“I wanted to be a force for turning that,” Jones said. “(But) I don’t see the opportunity to do meaningful work.”
Tough to come home
A generation ago, Paul Quirke left Michigan like Yee and Jones are doing now. Quirke grew up in Sterling Heights; his father worked in the auto industry. When he graduated from MSU in 1989, he looked around and saw a job market dominated by auto manufacturing, work he had no interest in.
So he moved to Indiana, earned a master’s degree in counseling, and has never looked back.
“I didn't feel a big desire to come back to Michigan because I wasn’t in the auto industry,” said Quirk, president of the Indianapolis branch of the MSU Alumni Club. “I personally got the feeling that Indiana was, ‘What can I do for you?’ and Michigan was, ‘What can you do for me.’”
Just over half (56 percent in 2022) of MSU grads stay in Michigan after they graduate, according to data from the Michigan State University Alumni Association. That’s at a school where more than seven in 10 students enter the East Lansing campus as Michigan residents. That means there are a lot of graduates every year who make the same decision Quirke made.
“I love Michigan, my parents still live there and my sister lives there,” Quirke said. “We’re going over July 4 to stay on a lake. I joke with my wife about my retirement being in East Lansing.
“When you talk to the people born and raised in Michigan,” Quirke said, “they always have high praise for Michigan, but when they’ve graduated, there weren’t (job opportunities) prevalent in their field.
“And there’s the winter,” Quirke said. “If East Lansing was in a warm weather state, I wouldn’t be joking about retiring there.”
A survey conducted for the Michigan Economic Development Corp. outlines the uphill battle Michigan faces luring new residents.
The survey, of Michigan residents as well as people who live in the Cleveland, San Francisco, Chicago, New York and Atlanta metropolitan areas, found that the most common word associated with Michigan by non-residents is “cold;” the most common phrase to describe Michigan as a place to work was “don’t know.”
“Everyone in Indiana has positive stories about growing up there (in Michigan) or vacationing there,” Quirke said. But once you settle someplace else, he said, it feels like home, too.
“You hear the Hoosier hospitality,” said Quirke, who lives in Carmel, an upscale suburb of Indianapolis. “There’s a path that goes all the way downtown, people walk by and say hi … it’s a good feeling to have.”
Spreadsheet brings a couple home
Christina Wright remembers looking at the spreadsheet two years ago with a tinge of disbelief.
Then 30, Wright and her husband, Nick Wright, were living in Boston at the time and trying to decide where to move next. They both are Michigan natives, with Christina growing up in Stanton, about an hour north of Grand Rapids. After graduating from MSU, Christina worked for two years at Sparrow Hospital with the Lansing medical center’s clinical nutrition team, before packing for Boston.
The only thing uncommon about the Wrights’ move out of state is that it took them two years.
At 12 of the state’s 15 public universities, including MSU, more Michigan natives moved out of state within six months of their degrees than students from out of state chose to stay here, according to data from 2010 to 2018.
- At Northern Michigan University, 75 percent of grads are from Michigan. But six months after graduation, only 32 percent of students remained in Michigan.
- At Michigan Tech, 78 percent of students are from Michigan, but just 46 percent of students remained here.
- At the University of Michigan, 55 percent of students are from the state but just 50 percent remained.
- Western Michigan University was an outlier, with 78 percent of its students from the state but 86 percent of graduates staying in Michigan.
For the Wrights, it took a pandemic and a data-rich spreadsheet to bring them back home.
After settling in Boston in 2015, the couple found themselves working full-time at home rather than at their offices during COVID, in a 600-square-foot apartment not built for two people to be participating in Zoom calls.
If they both could work remotely, Christina Wright figured, there was no reason they needed to stay in Boston. So they sat down and took an analytical approach to where they would move next.
“My husband is a data scientist, and he built a spreadsheet with 12 to 15 factors, ranked independently, for different cities,” Wright said.
Among the factors important to them: proximity to family and friends, nature/outdoor activities including distance and variety, job opportunities, walkability, amenities and cost of living.
The couple ranked cities across the country including Boston and Syracuse, NY.
When Nick Wright calculated the rankings, the winning city wasn’t what they expected.
“We were both surprised that Denver and Burlington, Vt., didn’t (win),” Christina Wright said.
The highest rank for both of them: Grand Rapids.
“Family was a huge part of it,” she said. “The New England lifestyle is conducive to the outdoors — hiking, kayaking, you can do it out your front door. Reengaging with Michigan, when you come back as an adult after spending time away, you gain appreciation for the outdoor activities that Michigan has.
“When we saw (the results) on paper, we knew at our core that we wanted to come back to Michigan,” she said.
The couple settled in Grand Rapids in 2022. Christina, who still works for a healthcare company based in Boston, is expecting their first child in July. A lot of their friends have moved back, too, primarily because of family.
Like Quirke, Christina Wright said Michigan can do more to give young college grads a reason to stay. She recommends the state look at financial incentives to keep college grads in the state for a few years after they earn their degrees. Once they get married, have children or buy a home, they are more likely to stay.
And, also, “marketing the wonderful things about Michigan.”
A way-too-empty nest
Winnie Brinks traveled from her home in the state of Washington to enroll at Calvin College (now University) in Grand Rapids in the late ‘80s. She fell in love with Michigan, and never left.
Now, as the Michigan Senate Majority Leader, Brinks has a professional and personal interest in making the state as attractive to young people today as it was to her years ago.
Brinks has three adult daughters: two graduated from the University of Michigan, one from MSU. All moved out of the state for jobs or educational opportunities.
“I’m really pleased they’ve had a wonderful childhood here and are out experiencing other places, that’s an amazing thing for them to do,” Brinks said. “(But) at the end of the day, I’d love it if they'd choose to make Michigan home.”
Brinks, a Democrat, said she believes efforts underway now by the Democratic-controlled Legislature and Gov. Whitmer will help shift the “the perception that some people have that our state (is) primarily industrial and manufacturing.”
Enshrining reproductive rights in the Michigan Constitution and legislative efforts to promote LGBTQ equity are policies Brinks points to as a means for Michigan to boost its appeal to young workers and couples.
Changing perceptions of those who picture Michigan as filled with factories will likely cost money. “We’ve always had a Pure Michigan campaign for tourism, and one (to attract) business,” Brinks said. “I think we could do a lot more with a similar concept to help attract young people in particular.”
Came back for family, not the higher taxes
Jonathan Lindsey grew up in Branch County, in southwestern Michigan. He attended Yale University and later served in the Army Special Forces in Afghanistan and two tours in the Middle East.
When he left the military in 2016, he settled in Tennessee with his Tennessee-native wife.
With young children and little extended family support, Lindsey and his growing family moved back to Michigan in 2018.
“In Michigan, we had grandparents, aunts, uncles and similar-age cousins (to our children),” Lindsey said. “I was a remote employee who traveled for work, that allowed me to move, but it was family that was the prime motivator.”
He said the move was “the opposite of conventional wisdom.”
“People said, ‘Who would be dumb enough to move from Tennessee to Michigan?’” Lindsey recalled. “And I cannot make an honest case to move here. That’s the problem.”
Lindsey, now a Republican state senator in a district covering several counties near the Indiana border, said Tennessee has no personal income tax and a more business-friendly tax structure, factors he contends sparked that state’s “enormous growth.”
Between 1990 and 2020, Tennessee’s population jumped 41 percent; In those same 30 years, Michigan grew by just 8 percent.
“The moment I moved here, my tax bill went up,” Lindsey said.
The 38-year-old, who now lives in Hillsdale, loves the beauty of Michigan and its people. But without policy changes, he worries that too few will discover his native land’s wonders.
“Think of the natural beauty here — a lot of states just can’t compare,” he said. “We have a lot of things going for it that a place like Tennessee doesn’t.
“Unfortunately for a lot of people, if they’re finishing high school or college, one of the best decisions they can make is to go somewhere else to establish a family. And that’s a shame.
“I expect to be here for life,” Lindsey said. “Now I’m fully committed to doing all I can so when my little kids grow up, we’ve righted the ship.”
Lakes and affordable housing
David Snodgrass left Michigan 36 years ago, after earning a marketing degree at Central Michigan University. At the time, the Big Three were “collapsing” and he had no interest in the auto industry, so he “packed up my car and moved to Seattle,” where “the classified section (listing jobs) was thicker than the (whole) Detroit News,” Snodgrass recalled.
The 60-year-old software designer moved back to Michigan last year, buying a home in Midland.
Snodgrass’ blunt reason could be a marketing tool for the state. “Low housing prices were the draw,” he said.
“I started looking around other places to settle into retirement,” Snodgrass said. “The pandemic, the way the economy was,.. I need to make a decision to go somewhere that is affordable. Midland is a very safe and quiet, well-managed town.”
He said he knows a 60-year-old retiree is not the target population for the state’s attraction efforts, but Snodgrass suggests the state needs to amp up its promotion of lakes.
Beyond the big ones — Michigan, Superior and Huron — the state has more than 11,000 inland lakes and ponds, the fourth-most in the nation, which could be a huge selling point for people living in the arid Southwest.
As for Snodgrass, he’s keeping an eye out to move again. But this time, he said he’s only looking in one state: Michigan.
A road rally pitch for Michigan
Mallory McMorrow has lived all around the country. She was born in New Jersey, earned an industrial design degree at Notre Dame, and worked in design firms in New York and Los Angeles.
In 2013, while living in L.A., she participated in an invitation-only, 1,000-mile road rally around Michigan, hosted by a friend.
“Ben Bator, who now has a creative agency in Detroit, had a whole vision for using it (the rally) to show off Michigan to people from all over the country,” McMorrow said.
She recalls being taken aback by the beauty of the state, so much that she took part in the same rally in 2014.
The next year, she and her then-boyfriend, Ray, moved from Los Angeles to Michigan.
Ray is from Michigan, but “had no plans to move back,” McMorrow said. “I decided to make the move after falling in love with the state while on the rally.
“California was too expensive, and in the creative industry it was super cut-throat, versus the culture of creative folks here, which was collaborative and welcoming,” she said.
The couple married at Eastern Market in Detroit in 2017. Just months later, McMorrow filed to run for state senate.
“I went all in,” she said.
Now 36, McMorrow is majority whip in the Michigan Senate, and as the Democratic chair of the Economic and Community Development Committee, is heavily involved in state efforts to boost population growth.
“I’ve been trying to sound the alarm for four years and felt like it was falling on deaf ears. It’s starting to get attention now,” McMorrow said. “Fundamentally, it impacts everybody.”
One of the challenges Michigan faces is that the state doesn’t have “hubs of opportunities” that exist in boom towns like Austin, Texas.
“It’s why you see young people live in concentrations of talent,” McMorrow said. “So (they) want to move where, one, there are a lot of young people, and, two, a concentration of the type of jobs you go after.
“I believe that Michigan doesn’t get enough credit,” she said. “I fell in love with it.”
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