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California. New York. Washington, DC.

We often hear of recent graduates and skilled talent moving to these areas for lucrative jobs. But what about places like Michigan? Not so much.

Brain drain, the mass exit of talented people from a given area, has been afflicting many states for well over a decade. As the CEO of a business headquartered in Michigan — where more young people have been leaving the state than entering it since 2005 — I’ve experienced this phenomenon firsthand.

As organizations grow increasingly reliant on technology to stay competitive, brain drains pose a serious problem. Whether we’re looking for engineers to develop innovative products or IT professionals to keep our systems running smoothly, companies in Michigan and elsewhere need to compete for these skilled workers against organizations in more glamorous locales.

The Brain Drain Is Slowing Down, But It’s Still an Issue

One bit of good news: The brain drain is not as bad as it used to be in many places. For example, with Detroit on the rebound and a growing economy statewide, more talent is deciding to stay in Michigan than in past years.

The trend of professionals leaving was especially pronounced between 2008 and 2012, when the state experienced an average annual net loss of 17,208 people 25 years old and older with a bachelor’s degree or higher. That number dropped to 6,412 graduates a year between 2013 and 2017. A marked improvement, but at the end of the day, more skilled professionals are still leaving than are coming in. This makes it very difficult for businesses to hire the talent they need to grow and stay competitive on the national stage.

Tech talent in particular is in high demand, yet is highly concentrated in certain areas of the country, and Michigan is not one of them. As more and more companies seek tech talent, this makes it even harder for us to draw these professionals to our state. I am sure plenty of organizations in other states face a similar challenge.

Every Company Is Now a Tech Company

You have likely heard this bold statement before. Regardless of whether or not you agree, it is indisputable that every company’s success depends on its use of technology. Countless business functions — even ones that don’t seem overtly technical — now depend on technology, while the most successful companies are the ones leveraging technology to become more efficient and better serve their customers.

In this climate, everyone is scrambling to hire tech talent, making it harder for any individual business to secure the professionals it needs to grow. Businesses outside of America’s tech centers are at a significant disadvantage. Unfortunately, hiring this talent will only get more difficult as the skill gap grows: The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that 100,000 IT jobs will be added annually over the next 10 years, but only 60,000 new workers enter the field each year.

To Attract Talent in a Brain Drain, You Have to Sell the Location as Well as the Job

Today, traditional methods of recruiting aren’t effective in an ordinary labor market, let alone for those of us recruiting talent in the midst of a brain drain. Offering great pay and perks is a good start, but we have to rethink how we engage with candidates.

One key problem is that recruiters tend to start selling a position and all its benefits before they even get to know what a candidate cares about. That’s totally backwards! Before selling an opportunity, we must take the time to learn about a candidate’s priorities and what they might want out of a new position. By demonstrating we care about a candidate’s wants and needs, we can provide a much better candidate experience.

Perhaps more importantly for companies like ours, understanding a candidate’s needs can also help us sell the location to the candidate.

For example, those of us in Michigan already know what makes this state a fantastic place to live and work. When talking to candidates, we have to find out what they care about and then sell the area based on what we’ve learned. If someone is looking for a pay raise — i.e., more money in the bank — we might be able to sell them on the relatively low cost of living. Other selling points can include the abundant opportunities for outdoor adventure and the amazing food and culture in Detroit.

However, we won’t know what will draw a candidate into Michigan until we’ve listened to them. Depending on the person, features like the Great Lakes and countless state parks could be major perks or totally irrelevant.

Truly listening to candidates also allows us to make better hires in general. By asking questions and learning what a candidate wants out of a role, we get an idea of whether they might be the right fit. In addition to making more hires, you’re saving yourself the headaches and expenses of making poor hires.

When it comes to hiring skilled talent in the middle of a brain drain — one of the most competitive markets imaginable! — we have two choices. We can either use the same old ineffective recruiting practices and hope for the best, or we can really get to know our candidates and hire the right people for the right reasons.

Talent might be leaving your state, but if you adapt the right strategy, it doesn’t have to leave your company, too.


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