When Stephen Boyd left his college in Indiana for a summer internship at Mutual of Omaha in 2012, he had an eye-opening experience in the city.
He was hooked by Omaha's music scene and little arts venues. He was pleasantly surprised by the night life he found in Benson and Dundee.
Months later, the freshly minted actuarial-degree graduate had job offers in hand from firms in Indianapolis and Louisville, Ky., and a pending application in New York. But when Mutual came in with an offer, Boyd didn't have to think too long. He was launching his career in Omaha.
“I wanted a job I could enjoy and be challenged in, and a city where I'd want to live for an extended period of time,'' the 26-year-old Fort Wayne, Ind., native said. “When I thought about it, Omaha had everything I wanted in a city.''
Boyd represents a success story in Nebraska's efforts to attract and retain skilled workers. But the state needs more stories like this if it's going to meet its hopes for growing its economy, workforce and population. Because Nebraska has recently seen the return of a longstanding state challenge: the brain drain.
Recent U.S. Census Bureau figures suggest Nebraska lost a net of nearly 8,000 college graduates to migration over a recent two-year span, with significantly more four-year degree holders moving out of the state than moving in.
That reversed the trend seen during the Great Recession and its aftermath, when Nebraska posted three straight years of net gains of college graduates.
Much of that brain gain had been attributed to the state's status as a relative economic haven during the severe downturn. But as the economy and jobs picture have strengthened around the country, apparently so has the pull of other places for the mobile and educated.
“The brain drain is back,'' said David Drozd, a demographer for the University of Nebraska at Omaha's Center for Public Affairs Research. “It's kind of reverting back to the historical trend.''
The brain drain's return has important implications for the state and its future. Experts say there's a strong link between a region's economic competitiveness and the talent and education level of its workforce. And when college graduates leave, the state also loses their future earnings potential and other contributions they could make to their communities.
Nebraska will never have a wonderful climate, mountains or beaches, or lights as bright as those in bigger cities. So economic developers say it's important that Nebraska firms and policymakers pay attention to the things they can control that could help keep and attract talent, particularly in technical fields that require significant education and training.
“This kind of tells me there's work to be done in this area,'' said Sarah Johnson, director of talent and workforce with the Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce. “We need to be really focused on what we can do to recruit and retain talent.''
The chamber and state already have programs aimed at keeping and attracting young workers.
Both the Nebraska Department of Economic Development and the Omaha chamber have focused on matching education and training programs with the state's high-growth, high-demand industries. Internships are also a growing area of focus, with both the state and chamber creating internship programs in the past three years aimed at connecting more new workers to potential employers.
But Johnson, economic developers and higher education leaders say the state can do more to try to plug the brain drain.
The state and business community could find more ways to help the University of Nebraska meet its ambitious goals for growing enrollment. In that vein, lawmakers a year ago funded the university at levels allowing a two-year freeze on tuition rates. History has shown that when young Nebraskans decide to stay here for college, they're far more likely to take jobs here after graduation, too.
It doesn't help to have more grads, though, if there aren't good jobs waiting for them. Industry leaders and state policymakers need to work together to grow the kind of high-paying jobs that attract skilled workers.
Stemming the brain drain and creating jobs likely will become part of the tax debate in the Legislature this year. Growing public-private partnerships such as Innovation Campus at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln or the Peter Kiewit Institute on the UNO campus also hold the promise of creating good jobs.
Nebraska can do more to market its brand and highlight its advantages to young workers, including an attractive cost of living that can make a house payment in Omaha as affordable as renting a small flat in Chicago.
Kandace Miller of Omaha's Aim Institute, a nonprofit that works to develop information technology talent, said businesses also can play a part by creating workplace cultures that appeal to young workers.
Millennials don't want to work in their parents' cube-filled offices; instead, they are attracted to unique workspaces and looser, more progressive environments that emphasize work/life balance, Miller said. It's not enough to have jeans day once a week.
“Nebraska is in competition with other states, so we have to work harder and smarter to keep up,'' said UNL Chancellor Harvey Perlman. “But I think we are well positioned to do so.''
In the constant churn of people moving in and out of state, Nebraska during recent decades has often come out on the short end. Of particular concern has been the loss of people with four-year college degrees.
Even from 1995 to 2000, when the Nebraska economy was relatively strong, Nebraska had a net loss through migration of more than 4,000 young college graduates and 15,000 people overall. In 2006, the state lost more than 3,000 college grads through migration.
But as the nation's economy fell into recession in 2007, the numbers started to turn.
Nebraska fared much better than most states during the recession, with the Brookings Institution ranking Omaha No. 1 in economic performance among the nation's 100 largest metro areas. The stable economy made Nebraska more attractive to those from outside the region and may have prompted some Nebraskans to stay who otherwise might have moved.
From 2008 to 2010, Nebraska saw 2,500 more college grads moving into the state than moving out.
At the time, it was understood the numbers could turn back when the economy improved across the rest of the nation. But some saw room for optimism.
Nebraska has done much over the last 15 years to increase its attractiveness as a place to work and live. There have been significant upgrades in technology education and research in the state's higher education system, the rise of trendy new urban housing developments, the evolution of a nationally recognized alternative music scene in Omaha, countless new arts venues, and impressive new arenas in both Omaha and Lincoln. Those developments have unquestionably improved Nebraska's quality of life.
Still, the brain drain has roared back. The new census figures show the state recently posted big net losses of college grads, an estimated 3,680 in 2011 and 4,117 in 2012.
Iowa also is now losing college graduates, according to the latest census numbers. Before the recession, Iowa was typically a brain gain state.
Drozd said it's hard from the data to know a lot of detail about the demographics of the college grads who have left Nebraska. But he said it appears they primarily fall into two groups: young people just launching their careers and retirees headed for better climates. The loss of the retirees doesn't hurt the state's workforce, though such higher-than-average earners contribute to the economy in other ways.
It's also difficult to tell where the out-migrants are going, though sampling by the Census Bureau suggests that Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Ohio, Minnesota and Kansas have been the biggest draws. Conversely, Nebraska is gaining notable numbers of college graduates from Iowa, Michigan and New York.
While the brain drain's return is disappointing, there's some good news when it comes to the education of Nebraska's workforce.
The state as a whole continues to make gains in overall education levels, a trend that has been seen since at least the 1970s.
Census data suggest there were 75,000 more four-year college graduates in Nebraska in 2010 than just a decade earlier, bringing the state's overall percentage of college grads close to the national average. The percentage of four-year degree holders rose from 23.7 percent to 28.1 percent, the 17th-highest growth rate in the nation.
As hard as the state works — and as much as it spends — to educate its young people, it needs to do all it can to keep them here after graduation. That will make putting a stopper in the brain drain a critical focus.
“We are concerned about it,'' said Catherine Lang, director of the Nebraska Department of Economic Development. “It's something we want to stave off.''
The internship programs created in recent years by Lang's department and the Omaha chamber appear to show that local effort can make a difference.
Since 2011, the department has operated Intern Nebraska, which partners with Nebraska businesses to share the cost of creating paid internships eligible to Nebraskans who attend college either inside or outside the state.
Some $5 million in state funding has helped create opportunities for more than 600 interns. Almost half the interns have ultimately landed full-time jobs with the companies where they interned, with many other interns landing jobs with other Nebraska firms.
The chamber's program, Intern Omaha, works with students who have already taken summer internships in Omaha and seeks to get them engaged in the community. It connects them with social networks and introduces them to local attractions and institutions.
During its second year last summer, Intern Omaha enrolled 180 interns from 27 states and four foreign countries. The participants were invited to mixers, baseball games and other outings and took part in a service day to aid local charities — all intended to make their stay in the city more memorable.
“We want them to say, 'Omaha was pretty cool. I could see myself living there,' ” the chamber's Johnson said.
On that count, it showed results: Some 87 percent of interns surveyed at the end of last summer said they were somewhat or very likely to accept a job offer in Omaha. And while it's too early to tell how successful the program has been in ultimately rooting interns in Omaha, there have been anecdotal successes. That includes Boyd.
He said his participation in Intern Omaha absolutely influenced his decision to return to the city after completing college at Ball State. He was introduced to “cool people'' and to parts of the city he likely wouldn't have found on his own.
“I didn't even know the College World Series happened here until I got to Omaha,'' he said.
A year later, life is good, he says.
He likes his job. Typical of millennials' affinity for urban living, Boyd walks to work from his home in the Field Club neighborhood, a car-free commute that he calls “huge for me.''
He continues to enjoy Omaha's music — not just local shows, but a little-known underground music scene centered in people's homes.
He's also never reluctant to help spread the word about the city he now calls home.
“There's a lot going on here,'' he said. “I'm always up for talking about why I love Omaha.''