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Who in Pueblo Will Be Left To Stop Generation Brain Drain?

Pueblo continues to suffer from a big problem: its young, college-educated population is leaving, and it’s impacting the economy.

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There are just three online job opening advertisements for Pueblo that require a master’s degree.

Fifty-seven require a high school diploma. The bulk of online listings, tracked by the state department of labor, don’t specify education. As of mid-December, the state agency could find about 1,600 online job opening advertisements in the county. The most advertised job skill is “customer service,” according to the data.

Anecdotally, job opportunities seem to be a significant reason why young people leave Colorado’s Steel City. I put the question out to my Instagram followers last month. If you left, do you see yourself ever moving back?

“I knew what my career would be like in Pueblo,” said Robyn, a personal friend who now works in public health near Breckenridge. “(I would be) working at a private office in a small dental community with little room for movement or growth.”

Robyn loves Pueblo.

“I recently went to a large conference put on by Delta Dental Foundation and the keynote speaker was a former Assistant Surgeon General and was also from Pueblo,” she said. “After the conference I immediately wanted to speak with him about Pueblo. I told him how I feel that every good thing that I have in my life is a direct result of growing up in Pueblo, he could not help but agree.”

Even so, Robyn told me she’ll probably never move back.

Several people who answered me on Instagram said the same thing. Jordan couldn’t see her self working anywhere in Pueblo. Heather said she’s experienced more career growth in the last four years in the Tampa area than in the six years after graduating from a Pueblo high school.

In 2016, a year after graduating from Colorado State University-Pueblo, most of my friends had already moved away. My friends who were left, armed with degrees from CSU-Pueblo, were either packing up moving vans or applying for jobs elsewhere.

That year the Bloomberg Brain Drain Index named Pueblo County the second worst in the country being impacted by the brain drain effect, which is the phenomenon that a region loses its young, degree-holding population at a fast rate. Boulder, a few hours drive north, was named the top city for attracting college graduates.

While Bloomberg hasn’t really done much upkeep to its 2016 investigation, it would seem, according to my Instagram replies, that things haven’t improved much since then.

State demography reports support the brain drain is real in Pueblo. The county experienced a net migration loss between the ages of 22 and 29 between 2010 and 2018. Colorado as a whole doesn’t see any net migration loss among any age group, only increases.

Even more troubling is that nearly 71 percent of CSU-Pueblo’s student body is younger than 35, and the county is still losing more young people than it takes in.

CSU-Pueblo business professor Mike Wakefield has been urging the significance of the impact of the brain drain for years. He’s the first person I talked to about the topic five years ago when I was simultaneously panicking about my friends leaving and covering local job announcements where the average annual income was typically estimated to be below $40,000.

“We’re going to have to break the cycle at some point,” Wakefield said at a Pueblo Economic Forum in 2015. He put the brain drain at the forefront of a presentation about the Pueblo economy. Last year, the Pueblo transplant said the same thing in a Chieftain op-ed where he argued for more targeted economic development approaches.

The Pueblo Economic Development Corporation, a private non-profit organization that is partially tasked with securing new jobs for Pueblo with the help of a dedicated fund of taxpayer money, most recently announced 171 full-time jobs with indieDwell, which manufacturers affordable housing. Those jobs would pay, on average, an annual salary of $38,000.

Last month PEDCO said it was welcoming MissionSide, a Census call center, to Pueblo. 900 temporary jobs would start at $16 per hour.

I’m not sure my friends will return for those jobs. I won’t. I left in August 2017.

Wakefield probably isn’t holding his breath either.

“Graduates leave because there are no jobs offering salaries and opportunities commensurate with their degrees,” he wrote in 2018. “The percentage of Puebloans holding four-year degrees is much lower than the Colorado average. There is a strong, positive correlation between four-year degrees in the population and median income. If we do nothing to slow brain drain, our labor pool likely will fall further behind in education levels and further behind in wages.”

Without jobs, we leave. Even if we want to stay.

Board of Education President for Pueblo City Schools Taylor Voss knows the conundrum all too well. He graduated from South High School in 2012 and CSU-Pueblo in 2016. He said he moved away shortly after graduating because he wanted to live in a community with a start-up culture.

Taylor moved back to Pueblo, helped launch a group for start-ups and landed himself on the school board. He said there’s a lot of work to be done in Pueblo.

“For me, it’s almost a culture in Pueblo we try to tell people to get out and go somewhere else. That there’s a better opportunity somewhere else,” he said. “I think that’s the wrong way to look at it. I think we need to start developing a culture of keeping people here and telling them about the opportunities if they stay here.”

Taylor told me he’d like to see a community-wide discussion, a vision or a strategic plan because there isn’t one that recognizes how intertwined the school districts and economy are.

“I think people are quick to complain about (the problem), but we’re not meeting at the same table and talking,” he said.

I’ve often heard people say it’s hard to attract companies to Pueblo because they don’t want their kids educated in Pueblo schools. That was a bombshell when I first heard it five years ago. But nobody has been willing to explain it on the record.

Taylor said he hears that, too.

So, what do we do, I asked him.

“I would say for me it’s a total mindset shift. If you look at our history, we’ve been dependent on employers and when that went away in the 80s we’ve been struggling to figure out the next step,” he said, adding that perhaps Pueblo needs to take an interest in cultivating its own companies. “We’re starting to get there, it’s shifting a bit…we need to be more intentional about that.”

It’ll take time, he said, maybe 10 to 15 years to morph into a place where young people want to stay, and likely a shift from an older generation making decisions to people our age.

He points to places like Fort Collins that have made a major turnaround. Like Pueblo, Fort Collins has a college (though much larger). The city is fostering growth through its graduates. That’s what Taylor said he’d like to see with CSU-Pueblo.

There have been efforts, but not enough to bolster a Fort Collins-sized success.

What Taylor predicts about the leadership of Pueblo is inevitable. Millennials will eventually take the reins and make decisions for Pueblo.

But I have to wonder: how many will be left by then? My friends and I have found successes, jobs and communities elsewhere.

“My friends that grew up in Pueblo are rocket scientists and people in med school and the most amazing community-driven people,” Robyn said. “People that would stay if they could, but those people are leaving in droves.”

How far will this brain drain deplete Pueblo before things turn around?