Michigan tries to lure best, brightest back

Posted on December 5, 2012

When Monique Bush graduated from Michigan State University 10 years ago, she landed at the Detroit Convention and Visitors Bureau marketing the city to out-of-towners.

After two years of working to attract business to Detroit, Bush quit and moved to Chicago.

“One day I said to myself, ‘I have to move here,'” said Bush, a Farmington Hills native who recently bought a condo on Chicago’s north side. “I felt if I didn’t leave, I would be stuck in Michigan. (And) if I don’t do it now, I am never going to do it.”

Bush is among thousands of young, former Michiganians now living in Chicago, among the top destinations for local college graduates. Young people move to the Windy City for work but also for its big-city amenities, such as the arts and mass transportation.

Chicago is such a draw for Michigan expats that college alumni organizations host numerous social activities, including cultural outings and sports-watching parties at nearly three dozen bars.

However, the exodus is an enormous brain drain for Michigan, which became one of the hardest-hit, longest-suffering states during the recent recession. State officials now are working to reverse the migration as part of an economic development strategy by hosting networking events in Chicago and trips back to Michigan.

“A great deal of our talent does stay here in the state after graduation, but we also have quite a bit of migration,” said Tangie Jones, project coordinator at Michigan Economic Development Corp. (MEDC). “We graduate a lot of engineers and technical talent but they do leave the state. We’re working to get people to come back to Michigan.”

That’s why the MEDC recently hosted an event in Chicago for Michigan alumni there to network with Michigan employers, university officials and economic development representatives.

Known as MichAGAIN, the event was the second in Chicago, attended by nearly 100 residents and Michigan employers, including Quicken Loans, Stryker, Thomson Reuters and more. Similar events have been held across the country, including Washington, D.C., San Francisco and Boston.

Launched at Ann Arbor SPARK, a business development and growth agency, the program was expanded to a state level in June 2011.

“Once talent is here, it will continue to attract companies to the state of Michigan with more opportunities for people,” Jones said.

Efforts to bring alumni back

Meanwhile, the first Amtrak train transporting Chicago Spartans back to Michigan State University arrived last month in East Lansing.

About 80 MSU alumni rode the train, decorated in green and white, to spend the weekend in greater Lansing, attend the MSU football game, visit the new Broad Art Museum and more.

The purposes of the inaugural Chicago Spartan train run were to bring alumni back to the region for nostalgic reasons but also to showcase new growth in the area, including new employers, said Tremaine Phillips, chief program officer at Prima Civitas, an East Lansing-based foundation that helped coordinate the event.

“There are a large number of graduates who are going to Chicago after leaving Michigan State University but after two or three years (there), we want them to think about Michigan and greater Lansing as a potential for their second or third career moves,” Phillips said. “It’s just about trying to attract those highly talented individuals back to the state. Many times these individuals leave but they still have families back here.”

Bruce Canetti, an attorney at the U.S. Department of Labor, likely won’t be moving back soon. The University of Michigan alumnus and Port Huron native met his wife through a Chicago alumni outing. They have settled in a Chicago neighborhood and have a 15-month-old daughter.

Canetti said he cherishes his roots and comes back regularly to visit his wife’s family in Farmington Hills and attend U-M football games. He even named his dog, Beckler, after famed U-M football coach, Bo Schembechler, and has grand plans for his daughter.

“My daughter will be a Michigan graduate,” said Canetti, president of the U-M Club of Greater Chicago. “Hopefully, we’ll sway her.”

‘Cities that work’ are key

A 2007 study of U-M graduates showed that about half live outside of the state, with most living in Illinois. More than half didn’t even look for a job in Michigan, according to the study, and most said location was more important than a job and they wanted to live in an urban area.

“That has led us to believe that you have to have central cities that work,” said Lou Glazer, president of Michigan Future Inc., one of the organizations that commissioned the study.

“That is what Michigan is missing more than anything else. We really don’t have cities that young professionals are looking for,” he said. “If we don’t have cities that can compete with Chicago, we are going to keep losing kids.”

There are an estimated 50,000 alumni from U-M and MSU living in the greater Chicago area. Both alumni groups raise money to provide scholarships for Chicago residents to attend their respective universities.

Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder has frequently questioned why young people want to be in Chicago when they could stay in Detroit and make a difference.

Vic Maurer, president of Chicago Spartans, said that’s an admirable goal but not realistic for some.

“That doesn’t reflect the reality of opportunity,” said Maurer, who commutes three hours daily for his marketing job for a nonprofit but lives on the Chicago River with his fiancee. The couple frequently attends social events around town.

“There’s nothing in Michigan I would move home for now that I’m here,” he said. “My home is here.”

That’s not the situation for everyone, including Andrew Bashi. The former West Bloomfield resident and Oakland University graduate went to law school at Loyola University in Chicago and now wants to build his own civil rights law practice.

Even though he loves the neighborhoods, mass transportation and activities in Chicago, he said Detroit might be a better place for his career aspirations.

“You come to Chicago because you want to work for a big employer,” said Bashi, 25. “If you go to Detroit, you are going to start something on your own. There is something really appealing about that.”

Kim Kozlowski, The Detroit News