Business and academic leaders tackle the state’s brain drain

New Jersey loses about 20,000 college graduates to other states every year, a dynamic that troubles leaders in education, government and commerce. Stemming this out-migration – or brain drain – is widely viewed as critical if the state is to remain economically competitive.

New Jersey Business & Industry Association President and Chief Executive Officer Michele Siekerka is one of those leaders concerned about the brain drain. “There are numerous reasons,” Siekerka told NJBIZ. “We are a high-cost state. We are number one in the nation with millennials living at home with their parents because they cannot afford to live on their own.” And she points out that New Jersey college graduates average $33,000 of debt.

The state is also fertile ground for out-of-state companies seeking educated employees. “Because we offer a high-quality K -12 public education, other states want to get our high school students,” Siekerka said. “Our high school students are significantly recruited by out-of-state institutions.”

Last year, the NJBIA issued “The Education Equation: Strategies for Retaining and Attracting New Jersey’s Future Workforce.” The report, prepared by Director of Economic Policy Research Nicole Sandelier, lists 13 recommendations that are being acted upon, Siekerka said.

“In order to retain and attract young adults to New Jersey, the state must develop policies that provide incentives for young individuals to receive an affordable, competitive postsecondary education in New Jersey that prepares them for successful careers in the Garden State,” Sandelier wrote. “Not only does New Jersey have an outmigration issue, but the state also struggles to attract out-of-state students to the Garden State as well.”

Despite some well-known advantages – a central location, nationally recognized high school academics, quality colleges and universities and a skilled workforce – young people continue to leave or stay away. “This could partially be due to the lack of branding for New Jersey’s postsecondary education system as a whole,” Sandelier wrote. “In order to build a brand for New Jersey’s higher education institutions the state must promote the benefits of staying or coming to New Jersey for postsecondary education; improve collaboration between government agencies, workforce employers, educational institutions, nonprofits, and industries to prepare students for successful careers; publicize career pathways and opportunities that the state has to offer, which lead to well-paying jobs in the Garden State; continue to advocate for the responsible and consistent investment by government into postsecondary education; develop cost-saving models for students to achieve stackable credentials and/or degrees; address and reduce the need for remedial education; and review the process for the transferability of credits among postsecondary institutions.”

The President’s Council – an organization representing 57 public and private colleges and universities in the state – has taken up that challenge by launching a branding campaign on the Choose New Jersey website to reach high school juniors to consider attending college here.

For its part, the NJBIA is bringing together the business community and academic leaders to share information about their needs.

“At any time we lose a resident, we lose their economic buying power,” Siekerka said. “This is more about people who have wealth. They are buying a car elsewhere. They are giving money philanthropically elsewhere.”

Judy Savage is the executive director at the New Jersey Council of County Vocational-Technical Schools. She represents 21 county-technical districts in New Jersey.

“Our mission is to provide career-focused education to high school students, some of whom go into their local workforce,” Savage told NJBIZ. “We provide career training for adults. As an educational institution, we know that adult students are being trained to work here in New Jersey. We know that some students leave New Jersey for college. We hope they return to New Jersey.”

Noa Gafni is the executive director at the Rutgers Institute for Corporate Social Innovation at the Rutgers Business School. Its mission is to educate current and future business leaders on the many ways companies can have a positive impact on society.

The institute is working with global corporations based in New Jersey: Samsung, Verizon, Novo Nordisk, BD and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

“We believe it is difficult to make a global impact without having a positive impact on your local community as well,” Gafni told NJBIZ. “We know [the brain drain] is an issue that is present and increasing and so we wanted to do our part in addressing it.”

Gafni hopes to bring together high school students, high school educators, college educators, and parents of high school students to solve the complex problems of New Jersey’s brain drain.

“There are aspects of this issue that filter across business, across higher education, civil society, government, and young people themselves,” Gafni said. “I think we need to bring together all stake-holders to solve this issue.”

“I think the brain drain is really critical because we need today’s brightest minds working on critical issues,” Gafni said. “The more students that we can keep in New Jersey working with these amazing organizations we partner with and others, I think the better off we will all be.”

Encouraging contact between students and businesses in New Jersey can be an important component in the effort to stop out-migration. “We know that if a student gets an opportunity to have experiential learning, they get visibility for opportunities in careers,” Siekerka said. “They go out and touch it so they get an emotional connection to see if it is the right thing for them. Social and emotional intelligence is important. You are creating a recruiting opportunity for New Jersey businesses who today are challenged in finding the right skilled workers. Today businesses are helping to inform the discussion of what are the in-demand skills that are needed on day one in order to be workplace ready. Unfortunately, how we teach K-12 education we have to think differently about that based upon the ever-changing nature of the skillsets that are needed to be workforce-ready.”

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