Louisiana still has a problem keeping its people.
That itself is nothing new. The Bayou State has long been a donor state when it comes to people, with hundreds moving to Texas for work. State and local elected officials have used the words “brain drain” for decades.
But according to data compiled by Gary Wagner, Acadiana Business Economist with the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, it's getting worse. Among college-educated residents, Louisiana had the worst net migration — the number of people moving in minus the number of those moving out — with Texas in 2017 than in the previous 10 years.
The data shows the younger adults are behind the change. Net migration to Texas for those ages 24 and under with a degree in 2017 was at -2,140, the worst since 2004. For ages 25-34, that year it was -1,343 after being at -1,275 in 2016.
It means the Lone Star State is taking Louisiana’s biggest investments — its best and brightest people educated at LSU and other taxpayer-supported universities.
They are people like Isabella Hundley, a Lafayette native who graduated from LSU in May with a 4.0-plus GPA with a degree in information system and decision sciences who was one of 18 to receive a medal for academic achievement from the E.J. Ourso School of Business.
She left Louisiana to take a job with Exxon Mobil in Houston after interning with the company the previous summer.
“The company really laid out the red carpet for her,” said her mom, Nicole Lachance. “They offered her a salary that most people in Lafayette don’t make. They will pay for her grad school. They have a focus on recruiting young talent and giving them incentive to stay with the company.”
Hundley’s story, however, is a double-punch on her home state. Mom Lachance and her husband are also leaving and will move to Colorado, which led the nation in net migration among college-educated residents per 10,000 residents between 2007 and 2017, data shows.
Other states are also taking Louisiana residents. Among the nine states in the southeastern United States, Louisiana’s -59.6 net migration per 10,000 residents ranked ahead of only Mississippi.
“You are losing some of your talented people, and talented people are really what drive regions to grow faster,” said Wagner, who compiled the data for The Advocate. “The way I like to think of it is people are the best resource we have. It’s not oil. It’s not natural resources. It’s people. When you take away the No. 1 resource you have, that’s a disadvantage.”
Take a look at all the net migration data compiled by Gary Wagner, Acadiana Business Economist with the University of Louisiana Lafayette's Mo…
Getting two-stepped on
How long has this been an issue? In 2002 The Advocate dedicated a year-long series to the topic of people leaving Louisiana.
But when it comes to the Lone Star State, the number of people moving there soared after Katrina then dropped significantly in the years after. Data shows the state lost more than 30,000 people with a college degree to Texas in 2005-07, but then it slowed and was buoyed by 15,000 moving from Texas to Louisiana in 2011-2013.
But those gains were short-lived.
The burgeoning economies in Texas metro areas are also to blame, LSU demographer Tim Slack noted.
“Think about it this way: when it comes to migration, you have push factors and you have pull factors,” Slack said. “In Texas, having places like Dallas and Houston and San Antonio, that’s pulling people out of Louisiana toward the opportunities provided there.
“Then you have push factors. Two major push factors in Louisiana are we have some of the highest poverty rates in the country and our economy is disproportionately leveraged on a 20th-century economy.”
Alexandria native Rachel Englesman got pulled away to Austin. A May graduate of LSU with a degree in business marketing, the former bartender at The Chimes in Baton Rouge moved to that state's capital city and works for Insight Global, a staffing firm.
Leaving Louisiana, she noted, was an easy decision.
“I definitely wanted to get out of Louisiana,” said Englesman, the only one in her immediate family to leave. “I feel like there wasn’t much growth for me professionally or personally. I kind of eventually want to start a family, and I feel like the education is pretty poor. I feel like I got what I needed from Louisiana.”
And like Englesman, that 24-and-under age group leaving is overwhelmingly Louisiana natives, according to data from the University of Louisiana system. Of the 41,000 graduates in the 2016-2017 term, more than 35,000 were natives. Only 5,000 were from out of state.
“A lot of my dad’s family still lives (in Louisiana),” Hundley said. “I’m happy with (my job). This is where a lot of the opportunities are. I know so many people who have taken jobs in Houston. I have a lot of friends with Exxon who have come from Louisiana, especially from LSU.”
How to stop it
The volatile oil and gas industry is not to blame, both Slack and Wagner noted. The issue is bigger than just one sector of the economy.
Laura Stead, a Baton Rouge native and LSU grad now living in Dallas, moved to Texas in 2012 with her husband, Scott, when they realized his career opportunities were slim in Louisiana if he stayed there with AT&T. He would have been relegated to a career in sales, she said, but the move to Texas allowed him to advance in the company to a job in cyber security.
Now seven years removed from Louisiana, the Steads — with two boys, ages 9 and 7 — are not moving back.
“I feel like unless our kids had an opportunity for a good life there, I don’t want them to go and get stuck,” said Stead, who has a master’s degree in social work. “I think Louisiana has not been very good at working from the bottom up. There’s such a disparity between the haves and the have-nots.
“That creates a lot of crime and inequity and makes people feel unsafe. What I’m seeing from afar is more division. I think if the state continues to divide in that way, I don’t think they’ll see people want to move there.”
The fix, too, is much more complicated. In trying to be more business-friendly, Louisiana invested the third-highest amount of business subsidies per capita in the U.S. between 2010 and 2017, Wagner noted, yet its economy has been the worst in the U.S. with a GDP that has shrunk 5.6% since 2010.
The state should broaden its tax base, he noted, and invest in early education.
“Look at the research on early childhood education — the returns on those investments have been enormous,” he said. “It’s a long-term strategy: make broader investments in education for the people who are here and try to create an environment that is conducive to entrepreneurship and let the people be creative.”
The state's non-metro areas have taken the brunt of the outmigration. The lack of jobs is magnified in rural areas, which is also lacking in business, which means a loss in sales tax base for local government.
The state has taken over financial management of four municipalities, according to earlier reports, and another 18 are close to being taken over.
“I think unless we can find a way to shift the economic opportunities in our state, we’re going to continue to see this happen,” Slack said. “The evidence suggests people in Louisiana love Louisiana and would like to stay here. People are attached to this place, but you’ve got to pay your bills.”
Englesman is definitely attached. Severing that connection would mean, for starters, no more boudin from Kartchner’s in Krotz Springs. Stead's boys love LSU football. And then there’s Mardi Gras parades, festivals and other events that make Louisiana unique.
“My friend was telling me that she found Louisiana to be the stickiest state,” Hundley said. “Even though they leave, they eventually come back. It could be as late as when they retire. I love Louisiana. I’m probably going back there for Festival International.”
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