As the graduation anthem “Pomp and Circumstance” fades into memory until the next commencement season and the most recent Inland Empire college graduates return their caps and gowns and look towards the future, I find it discouraging that most of those futures will be actualized outside the region.
Some people call it a “brain drain,” the phenomenon of university students graduating and leaving the region in search of a community in which to live, work, and play. I have asked several of our local college leaders if they tracked their graduates. “We need to do a better job of it,” was the general response. I asked my editor to contact a few colleges to see where their students are landing after graduation. My curiosity, in part, inspired by private and public conversations about our region’s lack of an educated workforce. This is also one of the reasons proponents of the “warehousing” of our region obdurately defend their position.
If small and mid-size businesses employ half of all private sector jobs and over 40 percent of highly skilled workers, then why are our local leaders banking on industrial real estate developers who build big distribution centers for some of the country’s most recognizable brands that then hire employment agencies which farm out the labor in drips and dribbles to the workers who remain in an endless cycle of low and even lower wages? “Distribution centers are good jobs for our unskilled workforce,” they say ignoring the fact that the brain drain dynamic even exists.
We contacted four of the six major IE universities and UC Riverside, my alma mater, was the only college to respond with actual numbers that begin to paint a bleak picture. While none of the universities were able to give specifics on recent graduates, UCR at least sent a breakdown of where its almost 90,000 alumni live. There are more UCR graduates living in Los Angeles than in Riverside County. A little more than a fourth of us have remained in the region.
When our local elected officials talk about investing in jobs for our region, too many quote the same statistics of those living here without college degrees instead of the number of those we educate here and do little to retain. I have always contended that the Inland Empire’s institutions are educating A workforce, we’re just not educating OUR workforce. We are educating LA’s, Orange County’s, and San Diego’s, and not focused on creating a place right here where our best and brightest can invest in their future and ours.
I know I sound like I’m touting provincialism, and I guess in some ways I am, especially as I watch other regions benefit from the talents of some of our smartest and most creative young professionals.
Like me, you probably believe that all it would take to stop the steady stream that flows outward is a bunch of good jobs, but I have learned we need to do more. We need to think holistically. We need to think about the types of “places” we are creating. Part of our measure of success as cities, former Riverside Mayor Ron Loveridge reminds us, is the number of college graduates in our communities. He argues, “you keep talent [here] by developing quality of place.”
Last week I heard an echo of that philosophy from Riverside’s new City Manager John Russo, who used the phrase “making memories” when asked how we can keep our graduates here. That concept immediately resonated with me and reminded me of the power of memory and its connection to the spirit of place, which just happened to be the topic of my doctoral thesis. Making positive memories in a place connects you…compels you…ties you emotionally to that physical environment.
Place-making is more than just providing a job, it is building a life…safe diverse neighborhoods, good schools, abundant entertainment and cultural venues, restaurants, places to socialize with the rest of the community, and opportunities to start and build companies that will employ others. Our goal should not be to just look at building more distribution centers to house the workers we currently have, it should be on building communities that retain the educated community members we lose at the beginning of every summer once the academic year ends.