Less than two years ago, Pell Duvall was feeling the brunt of the nation's economic slide, laid off from his job in Oregon and left underwater on his mortgage. He and his wife, both graduates of Truman State University in Missouri, decided it was time to return to their Midwestern roots.
Researching prospective cities online, he started reading how Omaha had been largely riding out the Great Recession.
“There were opportunities that required education, not just restaurant jobs,'' said Duvall, 29. “Just to see the variety of jobs and the big corporations in the area, I thought ‘Wow, that's something.' ''
Now he and his wife both have jobs and a happy new life in Omaha — in the process, becoming part of a trend.
Thanks in large part to its status as a haven amid the nation's economic turmoil, Nebraska last year was able to put a plug in its longtime “brain drain.''
After decades of watching its best and brightest leave the state for other places, U.S. Census Bureau survey data indicate that Nebraska in 2009 posted a net gain of college graduates through migration. In all, about 1,600 more college grads moved into the state than moved out.
Iowa also posted a gain of college graduates through migration in 2009, though its gain of about 1,000 was less than it was pulling in before the recession.
Besides reflecting the current state of the economy, the numbers bode well for Nebraska's economic future, too, said J.B. Milliken, president of the University of Nebraska system.
“There's a growing consensus, not just locally but internationally, that the key to economic competitiveness is talent and level of education in your region,'' he said. “This is very good news.''
The brain gain was part of an overall historic year for Nebraska when it came to net migration from other states. Some 10,000 more people moved into Nebraska than moved out during 2009, also reversing the historical trend.
For its size, Nebraska's net in-migration from other states in 2009 was the 10th-highest in the nation.
University of Nebraska at Omaha demographer David Drozd said there's little doubt that Nebraska's low unemployment — currently about half the nation's 9.6 percent rate — played a critical role in the migration trends.
“When the differential in unemployment is high, we do well,'' Drozd said. “Right now the differential is as high as it's ever been.''
With economists not expecting unemployment nationally to come down any time soon, Drozd said Nebraska probably can expect its brain gains to continue this year and beyond.
There previously have been other indicators from the Census Bureau that 2009 was a big migration year in Nebraska. The bureau in December indicated that Nebraska posted its biggest population gain in decades during 2009, with migration from other states playing a big part in that.
But the recent data were the first to suggest that the migration spike included a gain of residents with bachelor's degrees or higher.
Historically, Nebraska has been a big loser in net migration with other states, seeing far fewer people move into the state than were leaving. Of particular concern has been the brain drain — the loss of young, college-educated people to bigger and more trendy cities in other states.
Even from 1995 to 2000, when the Nebraska economy was relatively strong, Nebraska had a net loss of more than 4,000 college graduates and 15,000 people overall. As recently as 2006, census data indicate that Nebraska lost about 3,000 college graduates and almost 6,000 people in total.
But as the nation's economy fell into recession in 2007, the numbers started to turn. And by 2009, they turned positive.
“We believe this is the first brain gain in quite a while, and definitely is not what Nebraska typically experiences,'' Drozd said.
Drozd said Nebraska's net gains are a result of thousands more people moving into the state as well as thousands fewer leaving than in previous years. The census estimates suggest that 3,000 more people moved into Nebraska in 2009 than in 2008, and about 8,000 fewer people left the state.
Wesley Miller, 25, was among those who found a new home in Omaha in 2009. The recent college graduate was working a restaurant job in the Kansas City area when he learned that Yahoo was opening a new data center in La Vista.
Both he and a Kansas City friend ended up landing jobs with the company and are now rooming together in Omaha.
“If it wasn't for the economy, I probably wouldn't be here,'' he said. “I'm very blessed to have a great job with a really great company.''
Beyond the job opportunities, Miller and others say they've found much to like about life in Nebraska.
Duvall, the former Oregonian, is commuting by bike each day to his downtown job as an assistant production manager for Continuum Worldwide, the Omaha security consulting company. He's excited to see all the new biking lanes around town and additions to the metro trail system.
Duvall and Miller both have tapped into the growing community of young people in Omaha who are bullish on the city's future.
“I think it's great,'' Duvall said. “Omaha has a lot to offer.''
The numbers also suggest that Nebraska is keeping more of its home-grown college graduates, though they're not as easy to spot as the new arrivals. How do you know who otherwise would have left the city?
But despite the current gains, is it likely that Nebraska will return to a brain drain once the economy improves nationally? History suggests that it will. Still, Milliken and Drozd said there are some reasons to be more optimistic.
To the degree that any newcomers become rooted here, that reduces the chance that they will become out-migrants later, Drozd said. Improvements in the metropolitan area's quality of life could make a difference there.
Milliken noted that the number of out-of-state students attending the University of Nebraska is at an all-time high. Studies have shown that one of the best indicators of where people will choose to live and work is where they attend college.
Public-private developments such as UNO's Aksarben campus and the planned Innovation Campus on the Nebraska State Fair's former property in Lincoln are intended to help create private-sector opportunities for Nebraskans, Milliken said.
Increasingly, companies are clustering in areas that are producing young talent. It's been seen in the Silicon Valley of California, in North Carolina and in Texas — and hopefully in Nebraska, Milliken said.
“We can't have an impact on the economy of the rest of the country,'' Milliken said. “But we can put in place strategies that create opportunities in Nebraska for young people to be challenged and use their talents.''
Contact the writer: