Don't count Ohio out just yet

The "Great Recession" has been painful for all Americans, but especially cruel for Ohio cities like Youngstown, Toledo, Canton, and Fordham's hometown of Dayton. According to a recent analysis by Moody's, "Nine of the 15 metros with the largest decline in economic output were in Florida, Michigan and Ohio." In looking ahead, it is clear to analysts, politicians and business leaders that those cities that do the best job of keeping and attracting well-educated young people will pull out of the recession faster and be in the best position to grow and thrive when the economy revives.

For this reason, it was disheartening to many political, civic, and community leaders in Dayton to hear Bill Nuti, the New York City-based CEO of National Cash Register, explain why he was moving Dayton's last Fortune 500 Company to Atlanta after 125 years in Ohio. Among the Atlanta area's attractions, Nuti cited "the high availability of a skilled work force" and the presence of "a lot of young, educated people." Even more stinging were the words of an anonymous source in the Georgia governor's office who told the Atlanta Business Chronicle that, "They can't recruit talent to move to Dayton, Ohio."

Is all hope lost for aging Midwestern cities like Dayton?

Not necessarily. This was one of the important findings from Fordham's new study "Losing Ohio's Future: Why college graduates flee the Buckeye State and what might be done about it." Start with the fact that Ohio is blessed with 75 four-year colleges and universities serving more than 620,000 students. Three of them rank in the top 100 nationally according to U.S. News and collectively they conferred 110,000 degrees in 2008. Ohio is attracting and developing plenty of talent with the potential to drive its future economic development.

The challenge is keeping these folks in the state. To figure out ways to do this, we asked the nonpartisan FDR Group to survey sophomores, juniors, and seniors at seven of Ohio's top colleges and universities. What they found is that a solid majority of those surveyed (58 percent) plan to leave Ohio after finishing college. These are surely disturbing numbers that doubtless reflect the economic worries of young people. Ohio's unemployment rate is over 10 percent, and new graduates face the worst job market in decades.

Indeed, their primary concern is jobs. Almost nine in ten Ohio college students say good jobs and career opportunities will be important criteria when they decide where to live during the first few years after graduating. Yet only eleven percent of them give Ohio an excellent rating on this front.  

Still, opportunity lurks in this finding. College students see the value of internships and mentoring programs that would expose them to potential careers. They also seem to understand that such programs beget connections that can ultimately lead to jobs. More than half are very interested in internships in local businesses and organizations (59 percent), co-op programs (53 percent), and opportunities to meet with local companies (52 percent).

The state is already encouraging such programs and practices. According to the Columbus Dispatch, "At present, 46,443 Ohio students take part in internships or co-ops, where they work for a term while earning college credit." Higher education chancellor Eric Fingerhut wants to more than double that figure by 2017, and says the state can do this despite its looming budget deficit. Further, explains Fingerhut, "We feel very strongly that this program... could make Ohio one of the most top-rated states in terms of the linkage of jobs for our graduates through internships."

Another sign of hope amid the gloom is an unexpectedly high level of interest in the education field among Ohio's top college students. Whereas about 10 percent of Ohioans with college degrees presently work as public school teachers, 37 percent of college students--and 29 percent of STEM majors--would definitely consider being a public school teacher for at least a few years. There is more talent available to education, even in subjects like math and science, than the state is presently tapping--a valuable resource for improving Ohio's K-12 education system.

Ohio is down but not out, and if it rises from the current economic morass it will be because it has found ways to keep talented people in the state, and has opened its classroom doors to a sizable percentage of the top-notch folks who stay. These objectives are achievable. But it won't be easy.

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