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Part 1: Why Talent Leaves Michigan

By: Sarah Craft

My friend Bryan Lewis had a great year. As program director at Youth Energy Squad, his mission is to grow the next generation of green leaders. This year, his team engaged nearly 2,500 Detroit students and completed nearly 600 community greening projects. They visited Washington D.C. and students had the opportunity to meet with leaders to discuss ways to build power for young people across the country to take action in sustainability.

“My mission is to work with young people to lead change that improves the lives of other young people in the Detroit area and beyond,” he said. “I feel that we’ve gotten closer to achieving our mission than ever before. Our students grew so much and I’m so thankful for our program to have been a part of that growth.”

Bryan has definitely found his place in Detroit. But that wasn’t always his plan.

Bryan grew up in Southfield and there was a sentiment shared by many of his peers that the only way to move up in the world was to get out of town. So when he had the chance to attend Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, he jumped on it.

Southeast Michigan loses so much young talent to other states. And in our recent Southeast Michigan Talent Retention Survey, Detroit Drives Degrees had the chance to hear from almost 100 people who were born in the region but left. Based on this survey, the top three reasons people leave are for work, education and exploration.

1. Work opportunities

Most survey respondents said they left the region for a job. They said it was challenging finding entry-level work after college or there was a lack of well-paying jobs in their field, especially in tech, sciences and public policy.

I love Detroit and would love to move back eventually. But my career options are best on the East Coast.”

“If I could find stable employment I would move back in a second.”

“After working part-time or working for organizations where upward mobility wasn’t an option, I was offered a job outside Detroit. I had to take it, for the professional opportunities as well as for my own emotional well-being. I loved living and working in Detroit, and I would come back in a heartbeat if offered a comparable position to what I do now.”

2. Higher education

Like Bryan, many respondents said they left the region for an opportunity to attend college or graduate school. Some returned after completing their degree but others stayed because of prospects they found in their new network.

“I went to school on the west side of the state – loved it. But both my husband and I wanted to be close to our families and our cottage on Saginaw Bay.”

“Moved to the Northeast and will likely stay in the area due to my career and my spouse’s family is from this area.”

3. Interest in other areas

Others said that after growing up in Southeast Michigan, they simply wanted to experience life in another place.

 “I wanted to see what life was like outside of Michigan and my job opportunities were limited, so I left. I like living outside of Michigan, recreationally and culturally.”

In many cases, respondents said amenities and quality of life are better in other areas. Many relocated to larger metropolitan areas that invested differently in public spaces and infrastructure. In particular, respondents cited walkable urban neighborhoods, robust regional transit and diversity.

“I don’t think Detroit is attractive to millennials. It lacks public transportation, diverse industries and diverse people.”

Some of our region’s home-grown talent leave and never return. Others, however, do come back. Usually they return for family, an interest in Detroit, and the opportunity to make an impact.

As I mentioned in my last blog, all three of my college-educated siblings left the state and will very likely never return. Bryan did. Find out why in my next post.


Sarah Craft is a program associate for Detroit Drives Degrees.