Northwest Minnesota's 'Brain Drain' vs. 'Rural Renewal'


by Chet Bodin~

Much has been made about the loss to a local economy when young people leave a city, county, or region. This so-called “brain drain” is particularly hard for rural areas separated by distance and culture from the state’s major metropolitan areas. This concept is often based solely on the exodus of people from 15 to 29 years of age, who leave their hometowns or adopted homes for educational opportunities or career prospects unavailable or seldom found where they’re from, or to simply broaden their horizons.

What’s lost in that demographic shift is the counteractive in-migration of workers back into rural regions.  In what’s come to be known as “the rural renewal,” research has identified an increase in population cohorts aged 30 to 49 in most rural Minnesota counties, including in Northwest Minnesota.

Post-Recession Trends

Population data clearly show the out-migration of workers in younger age groups from rural counties. However, this trend typically is discussed out of context. In fact, unless the county has a four-year university, the out-migration of young people is the rule rather than the exception.

This misconception often leads to low morale in rural areas which interpret the loss of its youth as a reflection of their community, rather than a societal norm occurring throughout the state and country. (See Figure 1.)

Figure 1: Percent Population Change Age 20-29 cohorts

Figure 1

Source: U.S. Census Bureau, 2000-2010

Since the end of the recession, migration trends throughout rural Northwest Minnesota mirror those found in rural areas across the state. There were nearly 6,000 less people ages 20 to 24 in rural Northwest Minnesota than expected, which indicates an approximate 20 percent net migration out of the region by this age group. On the surface this sounds dire, but when compared to this group’s out-migration rate from 2000 to 2010, the amount has shrunk. (See Chart 1.)

Though out-migration transpired among 25 to 34 year olds in Northwest Minnesota as well, current trends show a slowdown (www.extension.umn.edu/community/brain-gain/docs/continuing-the-trend.pdf).  From 2009 to 2013, the region lost only 13 percent of people in this age group, while adding nearly as many individuals ages 30 to 34 in that time.

Evidently, Northwest Minnesota is experiencing a “brain gain” in workers from 35 to 54 years of age, rather than a brain drain.

Chart 1. Population Migration by Age Group Rural Northwest Minnesota, 2009-2013

Chart 1

Source: American Community Survey, 2009-2013 1-year estimates

Manufacturing Hires

Manufacturers (and most other industries) in the Northwest should be elated to learn about this rural renewal, if it hasn’t already become apparent to them. The manufacturing industry has added almost 3,000 jobs since 2010, with many new workers being plucked from the 25 to 44 year old age groups. (See Chart 2.) Industry subsectors with the most new hires among these ages were Fabricated Metal Product Manufacturing, Wood Manufacturing, Food Manufacturing, and Transportation Equipment Manufacturing.

Chart 2. New Manufacturing Hires by Age: Northwest Minnesota 2010-2013

Chart 2

Source: DEED Quarterly Workforce Indicators

Interestingly, most of the middle-aged migrators moving to the Northwest are doing so for the quality of life, rather than the quantity of jobs.  But most of them need good jobs, too, and the manufacturing industry has been more than happy to provide them.

New hires in these age groups are often well educated, work-tested, and bring various connections with them to the industry. This is not to say younger workers are bad hires – far from it. Statistically speaking, they are simply more likely to migrate out of the area for other opportunities. Instead, the tenure of middle age workers is often longer and turnover rates are lower, making the employer’s investment more apt to pay off.

Did You Know?

October 19-25 is Minnesota Manufacturers Week. Find out more about Minnesota’s manufacturing industries. Or explore the variety of training options and careers related to manufacturing in Minnesota.

Chet Bodin is the Northwest Regional Analyst for the Labor Market Information Office, Department of Employment and Economic Development. 

Photo Credit: www.duluthnewstribune.com

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