Brainpower is the fuel of the New Economy — a commodity always in demand and never readily available. While some community leaders say that brain drain — a flux of college graduates fleeing the area — still cripples New Orleans today, others contend that the city has rebounded with a jump-start strategy for bringing in brainpower. Regardless, both sides agree that New Orleans’ ability to recruit and retain local talent will determine its future authority and relevance.
The people of New Orleans are this city’s strongest component today – and throughout history. But New Orleans has been exporting talents for the last 20 years, and thereby producing a brain drain because there are no real jobs to keep people in New Orleans. The creative talent of New Orleans has been astounding — just think about the historical creation of jazz and rock ‘n’ roll. What will bring back that talent? Tax initiatives. Industrial structures that can be converted into manufacturing plants. Research and development plants. In the next three years, the commerce over the Internet will be 100 times greater than it is today. That said, why not build an e-commerce servicing complex in the New Orleans East area? Technology offers an unlimited number of opportunities.
Some public high schools want to send only their best students to the New Orleans Center for Math and Science. But we ask them to encourage all interested students to attend our recruiting session. Don’t pre-select for us. One other problem is the hierarchy in our culture and our nation about science and math. When any adult visits here, the first thing they say is, “I was never very good in math or science.” There’s nothing innately wrong with American’s ability to learn science and math, we just haven’t taught those subjects well. Therefore, lots of kids feel they can’t succeed in math and science. New Orleans is capable of encouraging them to at least try. The people in this city have responded to the opportunity. The kids responded. To come here, and to visit a classroom is to automatically feel much better about the future of education here. These kids are eagerly competing with one another intellectually. They come from every neighborhood — from some of the lowest-scoring schools and some of the highest — yet they get along well, and we rarely have trouble. The New Orleans Center for Math and Science is going into its seventh year. We have good reason to believe that both the city and the students will continue to respond well to this kind of opportunity.
Obviously we don’t make students sign an agreement to stay in New Orleans and contribute to the local economy. But when the founders of the New Orleans Center for Math and Science began the school, they took into consideration the great number of jobs for lab technicians in the city’s medical schools and chemistry industry. Currently, these industries are importing workers from other regions because they can’t find the talent they need in New Orleans. We work hard to secure summer internships for our students in the medical school labs because we want them to gain the confidence they need to feel like this is a profession they could pursue. We want them to see themselves wearing white lab coats and becoming role models for the next generation. To my surprise, I have found that even those kids who participate in our internship programs at labs or the SPCA, — not answering phones, but actually doing meaningful work — are still falling into after-school jobs at places like Burger King. Why doesn’t it occur to them to return to the lab? Even though they’ve completed the internship program and gained the experience, when it comes time to look for a job, they fall back to the safety zone and go after a position at an organization where they know they’ll be hired. We must break down that mentality and help more students see themselves as prepared, capable candidates for career-related jobs. We have to figure out ways to strengthen their own expectations for entering a profession. Thankfully, college recruiters are actively pursuing graduates from the New Orleans Center for Math and Science. As soon as recruiters learn that we’re a science and math school with a student body that’s 95 percent African-Americans, the phone begins ringing off the hook.
In Louisiana and other Southern states, it was common to hear legislators complain about the state’s substantial monetary investment in educating locals students who graduate and then go elsewhere for a career. The Southern Technology Council has and continues to demystify the ‘brain-drain’ argument. Based on the council’s 1998 report, ‘Where Have All the Students Gone?’, we found minimal information that could either reinforce or counter the argument. The truth paints a more complex picture than the ‘brain drain’ theory. Yes, recent graduates moved away from the area, but they also returned home or circled back after working in another city for a while. But now we’re working on a strategy to retain local talent from the start. For example, the STC is exploring programs that have worked to keep young talent in other areas. The poorer regions of the South are looking for possible solutions, so the STC is working to report on some of the best model practices. The ’98 report identified where the students are going and so forth, but it didn’t answer the crucial question: Why are they leaving? What can we do to encourage more young, skilled workers to build careers, build lives, and build wealth and capacity close to home?
Retaining young, local talent is a problem across the South. It’s less of a problem in New Orleans because New Orleanians never want to leave this place. But the real key to keeping them here is to provide attractive job opportunities. So, our challenge is to ensure that we have an ample number of good jobs for our graduates. We’ve had times when we were unable to provide enough of those opportunities, but if we don’t make it a priority to guarantee those jobs, then we’re going to lose smart people — especially the educated black students who usually move to Atlanta for economic opportunity. It boils down to the overall strategy of economic development: You just have to make jobs available.
One of the biggest challenges facing New Orleans is retaining local talent. We certainly have the talent here, but a lot of times, high-tech workers think the grass is greener in Silicon Valley. People don’t think the opportunities are here, but the opportunities are growing. We just have to get the word out. We’ve got to make sure that we’re well connected to our universities so our students know what is available to them. I think a lot of communities, not just the New Orleans area, face the challenge of ‘brain drain.’ One of our missions at the Chamber of Commerce is to enhance the business climate so that companies will choose to locate here. If a city can set itself apart by offering high-quality, customized training unique to that region of the county, then that area can create a market niche and be more competitive. Initiatives such as that are currently in the works here.
If you can convince businesses to stay here, locate here and grow here, that creates a recruiting environment for graduates of high school, community college, and universities who might otherwise seek out opportunities elsewhere. But again, we must create the kind of business environment that makes companies want to locate and stay here.
I’ve met a lot of new professionals who’ve been recruited into the area. The community is making efforts to seek out the best talent that it can find for available positions. In the past, there was a strong commitment to hiring locally. And, obviously, that’s changing. It’s a sign that the community is at least willing to look outside of the region for talent – when you want to grow, you sometimes have to venture outside of your own garden.
The Board of Regents is Louisiana’s higher education governing board. Some years ago, they took monies that resulted from an oil and gas royalty settlement, and put it aside to realign funding priorities for Louisiana. One, they funded research for emerging young faculty. If someone is on the brink of being a nationally competitive researcher, but needs some data to get that first research program off the ground, the Board of Regents will fund that. They also had a program directed at industrial ties, and are willing to fund research with an industrial focus that could be important in Louisiana. They also recognize that you can’t live in a knowledge-based economy unless you are able to attract and retain the best talent, so they will advance money for endowed shares that allow the universities here to hire superstars. Along the same lines, another extremely important initiative has been the funding of programs to recruit superior graduate students.
There’s always going to be a group of New Orleanians who want to get away. Local people leaving to explore new places isn’t problematic, if they return and bring that knowledge back. And I think there are incentives to keep them here: cultural roots and new job opportunities. For example, either building a business or joining an Internet technology company is a viable possibility. Powering the new economy will be New Orleanians who’ve moved back to the area and bring with them fresh business insights. The world will then realize, “Wait a second, there’s stuff happening in New Orleans, and some great success stories are in the works.”
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