There is a constant murmur among the leaders of West Virginia bemoaning the outward migration of our state’s young talent. While our economy suffers, our brightest students look for work in Pittsburgh, DC, New York, Atlanta, and other centers of economic growth across the US. The loss of our talented young minds, infamously known as “brain drain,” is a real problem for WV. WV is one of only three states that has lost population since the 2010 census, along with Illinois and Vermont. However, WV is losing residents at a much faster rate (1.2% decline from 2010-2016 compared to a 0.2% decline for both IL and VT). A shrinking population is bad for an economy- really bad. Businesses have little incentive to locate in areas where the market is shrinking. That makes it harder and harder to maintain market share over time.
It would be nice if all our talented college students made the choice to stay in the state and start businesses or contribute to existing organizations. However, some brain drain is always bound to happen. There will be unique opportunities that draw students away, and that’s ok. We need to shift our focus to “Brian Gain” instead of worrying so much about slowing the brain drain. Brain Gain is my term for attracting outside talent into WV. If people begin moving to WV to pursue good job opportunities, the problem of brain drain will take care of itself.
If this sounds like a pipe dream, think again. We’ve already experienced Brain Gain in WV, albeit in isolated situations. The Union Carbide plant in South Charleston attracted some of the world’s brightest engineers to the Kanawha Valley. The Toyota plant in Buffalo has brought all kinds of business leaders, engineers, and skilled production workers to our state. Our universities have attracted world-renowned scholars, physicians, and scientists. My mother, a Virginia native, has worked for the Marshall University Medical School for over 30 years. I am here because of the Brain Gain created by Marshall!
I am now fortunate to work for another one of our state’s great institutions of higher education, the University of Charleston. I’ve met a number of UC graduates who came from outside WV but have chosen to stay in the Mountain State. We cannot deny the present economic difficulties of our state, but I strongly believe that WV is bursting at the seams with economic potential. Below, I offer five reasons why, but this is not an exhaustive list by any means.
- Location– WV is situated at the confluence of the Northeast, Southeast, and Midwest. From Charleston, you can drive to Charlotte, Indianapolis, Detroit, and Nashville in six hours or less. Expand that to eight hours and you can be in New York City, Atlanta, Chicago, or St. Louis. Our Eastern Panhandle counties offer convenient access to DC by car or rail, and much of the Northern Panhandle is within an hour’s drive of downtown Pittsburgh. The proximity of WV to the major cities of the Eastern half of the US is unprecedented.
- Higher Education– WV has a lot of colleges. Many people think we have too many schools for the amount of people in the state, but we are very well situated for future growth. Businesses tend to locate where there is a ready supply of skilled candidates. Historically, WV has ranked low in educational attainment rates, but it isn’t for lack of schools. The brain drain theory suggests that we are losing college-educated youth to other areas, and in turn, that keeps the educational attainment rates low in WV. Brain Gain, like we’ve experienced at the University of Charleston from students outside of WV, can boost our educational attainment rates and attract more businesses.
- Lack of Competition– The economy may be struggling in WV, but that indicates that competition is sparse. We are ripe for innovation and entrepreneurship- ripe like a WV tomato that’s so big it’s ready to fall off the vine. At the University of Charleston, we just opened the Russell and Martha Wehrle Innovation Center in January. WVU has multiple innovation centers, and the Robert C. Byrd Institute fosters entrepreneurship and manufacturing innovation in three locations around the state. Recently, I had the privilege of attending the I3 Innovation Showcase at UC and the Ten50 Demo Day at RCBI in Huntington. The ideas from both events blew me away, and many of the presenters plan to commercialize their ideas right here in WV.
- Natural Resources– Luckily for WV, coal is not the only natural resource in the state. We have abundant natural gas reserves, expansive forests, and plentiful water. I’ve lived in WV for the better part of 32 years, and I’ve never once been restricted on my water usage. Water usage restrictions are regular occurrences in California and other areas. Because of responsible harvesting techniques, our timber is essentially a renewable resource, and there is more than ample wind and sunshine for the generation of “true” renewable energy. The opportunities to harness natural resources in our state are seemingly endless.
- Natural Beauty– The outdoor recreation opportunities in WV are second to none. We have great ski resorts, world class whitewater rafting, fishing and hunting opportunities in every county, and PGA-caliber golf courses. WV is a hiker’s paradise and a photographer’s dream. For those who like to enjoy the outdoors in more luxurious settings, we have The Greenbrier and Glade Springs Resort. While all these things make WV a wonderful place to live, they can also boost the economy and create more jobs. As my colleague and Tennessee native Dr. Scott Bellamy has pointed out, it isn’t that far-fetched to imagine a Gatlinburg/Pigeon Forge atmosphere in the New River Gorge region. The tourism sector may be WV’s greatest asset for economic growth, but it needs to be marketed and developed properly just like any other product.
Perhaps I’m more focused on Brain Gain than brain drain because I left WV for both my undergraduate and graduate studies. I was curious and wanted to experience other places, but the jobs and opportunities weren’t as plentiful as I expected. I often joke with people by saying that I pursued my MBA because I couldn’t find a job after I obtained my bachelor degree, but it’s not really a joke! I graduated with honors from the Indiana University Kelley School of Business, which is generally considered to be a top 10 undergraduate business school. Unfortunately, I had zero job offers by the time I graduated. It was only after I moved back to WV that I discovered my true calling in the world of higher education.
I am excited about WV’s future. Huntington just won America’s Best Community award and silenced the naysayers who didn’t believe the city had a chance. Procter and Gamble is building a manufacturing facility in Martinsburg that will eventually provide 700 jobs. The City of South Charleston was just approved for a tax increment financing (TIF) district that will expand development between I64 and the Trace Fork shopping area. We can and will change the conversation in WV from brain drain to Brain Gain. I don’t know what the future holds, but based on all the innovative ideas I’ve heard from UC students and others, I know the future is bright.
About the Author
Travis Kahle is the Associate Director for Experiential Learning at the University of Charleston