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.

Why Detroit Drives Degrees Is ‘All In’ on Talent Retention

By Sarah Craft

Southeast Michigan has a talent retention problem.

My three siblings and I were raised in metro Detroit. Two went out of state for college and never came back. One graduated from Michigan State University and immediately got a job in Austin. She’s never come back.

After I earned my undergraduate degree from Eastern Michigan University, I moved to Detroit with eight of my closest college friends. Eight years later, I am the only one still living in the city. They’re never coming back.

My personal experience isn’t unique.

Every year, more than 60,000 students from Michigan’s 15 public universities obtain a degree. And every year, Michigan loses a massive amount of that talent; 51 percent left within six months after graduation in 2007 and 37 percent left in 2012.

This challenge is bigger than losing friends and family to other states, it’s directly impacting our region’s economic prosperity and individuals’ household finances. City Observatory reports that a 1 percent increase in four-year degree attainment is associated with a $1,100 per year increase in average incomes throughout a metro area.

At Detroit Drives Degrees, we want 60 percent of people living in our region to have a postsecondary degree (we’re currently at about 43 percent). We work throughout the entire talent development pipeline to reach our goal: To improve access to postsecondary opportunities, boost student success, and improve talent retention and attraction.

We’re leading powerful initiatives on access and success, and when I joined the Detroit Regional Chamber in January, they had me focus a large percent of my time on strengthening our talent initiatives.

The Talent Working Group is led by champions Kelly Kozlowski from Downtown Detroit Partnership and Samantha Harkins of Munetrix. Together we’ve re-established the working group to include a range of organizations working in the talent space: grassroots efforts like Soulcial Scene and Born and Raised Detroit; nonprofit partners like Detroit Experience Factory, Challenge Detroit, and Grand Circus; business partners like re:purpose, DTE and Rock Ventures; regional partners like Workforce Intelligence Network, St. Clair County and Macomb County; and statewide organizations like Michigan Future and the Michigan Economic Development Corporation.

These partners, and so many more (we’re at nearly 100 working group members), are passionate about talent and have spent time researching, sharing and brainstorming strategies to improve outcomes in Southeast Michigan. This effort has been incredibly collaborative; talent is the one thing that brings us all together.

We’ve come up with hundreds of ideas and we’re spending the next month narrowing and prioritizing based on research, focus groups, user testing and best practices. To start, we’re launching an online talent platform, but that sounds way more boring than what it is. Everything we do has to be talent-focused – focused on people. We know that to get people to stay, they need to be in love with their community, their friends and family, their job, and the future opportunities they dream about every day. That’s what we’re striving to do.

But we need your help.

Over the next few weeks, I’ll share highlights from our research and gear up to our soft launch this fall. I’ll also make specific asks of you and your organizations so that we can make this a real, impactful and engaging initiative that benefits everyone in our region.

This goal is personal to me and I hope it’s personal for you, too. Maybe we can convince our siblings and friends to come back. Maybe we can improve ours and our neighbors’ quality of life by investing differently in our communities. Maybe we can boost our annual incomes by $1,100 just by keeping more college graduates here.

There’s much more to come but if you want to get the conversation going now, feel free to reach out at And if you haven’t already, please share your experiences and ideas by taking our Southeast Michigan Talent Retention and Attraction Survey.

Sarah Craft is a program associate for Detroit Drives Degrees.