Is Northeast Indiana Doing Enough to Retain Top Talent?

This week, I learned of three colleagues leaving the area for other communities they believe value their talents more than NE Indiana.  As the hubz and I purchase our first home and commit even further to being a part of Fort Wayne this leaves me wondering how we can miss the opportunity to keep such talented individuals.   My experience in economic development and as a local small business owner allows me to see that efforts are being made but are they enough?.  This made me ask long time Auburn resident and NE Indiana advocate, John Bry, what he wishes to share with NE Indiana leaders as he prepares to leave the area for career opportunities in another state.  Below is his response.

bryI filed the papers for my divorce on July 3rd. After a 43 year love affair the writing was on the wall it was over. We tried to make it work, but we were just too far apart in our ways of thinking any longer to go on. I have to say that during our trial separation I was also tempted by another who offered a way of life my old flame was not offering. It has been an emotional decision to end this marriage. We had parted company before for 20 years, but absence made the heart grow fonder for all I wanted to do was to return to my first love. To bring my experience, education and knowledge back to our marriage and I finally got to do for 4 wonderful years, but both parties were still unwilling change in their core set ways. In my divorce I will retain the house (for now), a local burial plot and visitation rights to the area mostly on some holidays and long weekends. The divorce between myself and Northeast Indiana will be finalized as I begin a new position in Fort Myers, Florida on July 27th; ending my relationship with my first love: Northeast Indiana. It is a very sad moment for me, but with every day that passes the reality and acceptance sinks in a little more. Time does heal all wounds.

auburn-1I will be the first to admit my relationship with my hometown and region has been a love-hate scenario over the years, but isn’t every marriage like that? This area has been home to my family for over 200 years. I have spoken of it with pride, advocated for it, volunteer for it, supported it and longed to return to it as my career and education took me elsewhere. I don’t regret those choices either. I will continue to be a fan of the home team even though we are getting too old for another reconciliation to reunite for good. This is not one of those the “grass is greener” analogies because there are pros and cons to every community and region; even those who appear to have it all together and going for them. Loving an area is a commitment, but even then affirmation has its practical limits.

Keeping and attracting talent is a daunting task for many communities and Northeast Indiana. Out of the thousands of college graduates that call our region home, many will never return to put their education to work here. We know it is a problem, and granted we are not going to cater and appeal to every educated and talented individual who is homegrown or transplanted. It is neither fast nor easy to correct brain drain to an area where it has been occurring for decades. There are certainly some well-meaning benefactors and supporting organizations working to turn the tide in a very large ocean to see the horizon at times. Another talented and educated friend I know from high school told me this week she too signed her NE Indiana divorce papers, when she was flooded with job offers from Tulsa, Oklahoma. I shared with her my story as well, and she carries the same torn heart mindset that I do concerning the region. She had to accept the better opportunities were elsewhere. She asked me, “What do you think is the problem?” I was not sure how to respond. Is it a problem? Do leaders see it as a problem? Or, is the standard break up line, “It’s me, not you,”, and we all really know the true underlying meaning in that statement.

So where is the gap? What are we missing from this relationship that will turn the tide for those with talent pool with college degrees to choose NE Indiana; especially those who really want to stay, but are being forced to throw in the towel. Here are a few marriage counseling tips I have noticed over years that I think could bring back the spark to those of us who fit the description of “talent” who want to love and serve our region until death do us part. Here are three tips that could help continue to reverse the trend of losing talent in NE Indiana.

1.) “Celebrate. Don’t tolerate” A friend’s Facebook Page recently had a post that said, “Go where you are celebrated, not tolerated.” I thought to myself, “boy, ain’t that the truth”? Everyone wants to be appreciated for their gifts and talented and educated professionals are no different. These same people will be some of the first to give of their time, money and knowledge to their community. They are also often taken advantage of in a world that is more dominated by “takers vs makers”. Our region still operates under the premise of an outdated manufacturing code of “produce as much as you can for as little as possible.” That sometimes works, but not so much with a talent based workforce who want to be recognized and rewarded for the time and investment they have made to gain their education and experience. They are more than willing to take one for the team so to speak every so often out of community pride, but after some time it starts becoming stale when there is no return on that investment back to the one who is giving more than receiving. It becomes even more dis-heartening when politics seem more concerned with being the moral and social police verses topics that really matter to keep our state and region competitive. Such bickering drives a talented workforce away as we roll our eyes and start flipping through the “help wanted” postings. Our area also needs to be committed to pay for what talent brings to the table recognizing there is value in a variety of disciplines that fit into the larger goals of the region. Successful parts of the nation commit to paying for the value a diversity of talent brings to the relationship; not just in the better known professions, but ones in the After all, a well-paid and well-educated workforce translates into greater economic prosperity for everyone. In NE Indiana, we want the reward and outcome, but we don’t always want to necessarily pay for it.

2.) Value Experience. There are many talented individuals in our region who have experience to address our community’s problems, and that go to the heart of the six core pillars of strengthening our region. But, to the generation that was not born in the 1990s, slightly too old for a “40 under 40” Award, or do not reside in the heart of largest city are like the senior pets of a local animal shelter. We get overlooked for our age, but still have a lot of love to give. We have Bachelor Degrees, Masters Degrees, experience and knowledge, but we get passed by for the puppies and kittens of the group who have broken through the professional wall. Nothing against the younger generation. I feel a terrific synergy could be created to pair the generations together more so. Unfortunately, we operated in a “not what you know, but who you know” environment, and that is typical in our society, but it does not make it right. Sadly, many captains of industry and leaders in our area have the resources to address this issue, but they do not. We are missing making some great connections among the talent that are being segregated and highlighted willful generational divide.

3.) Go Beyond Lip Service. I cannot tell you how many times I have heard, “We need you here and we want you to stay here” in the past year as I completed my Master’s Degree and started looking for my next local career opportunity. It is nice to be wanted, but it has not translated to a real opportunity to stay in NE Indiana. I consider myself fortunate that I “know” a lot of prominent figures in our area, but they are many talented people in our region that don’t have that network and are opting to leave. At the same time, those “notable relationships” do not provide a safety net of finding a career in the region either. I have sent emails, made phone calls, gone to business socials, passed out business cards, sent resumes, spent countless hours writing proposals, developed budgets and even shown how my particular field of community development can be helpful to the needs of everyone from hospitals, banks and regional chambers. A State Senator has even gone to bat for me trying to help me make connections to keep me local, but to no avail. The responses have been nice and heartwarming. “You’re an asset to the region.” “We need to keep you here.” My personal favorite is, “I am working on creating a file, and thinking of how we can keep you here.” Really? I have a Manilla Folder and pen on my desk if it will help expedite that file making process. The point is we have to commit to our talent and put the network and resources behind it to make it truly effective, or talent we did not even know we had in the region will continue to leave. The professional and talent pool of NE Indiana need an outlet; especially our more seasoned ones who may, or may not have, a social network in place. They need more than lip service, or a file created. They need real support in a timely manner.

 

My affair in my marriage with NE Indiana came into play only last week. I took a break to visit my parents in Florida to the Fort Myers area. A region many in our zip code flock too every winter. It is a metro area that has many of the same aspirations, qualities and challenges our own area faces. They have water. We have water. They have interstates and state roads. We have interstates and state roads. They have thriving downtowns. We are getting there. They are expanding their network of sidewalks and bicycle systems. We are working on it. They have medical facilities. We have medical facilities. They have culture. We have culture. You get the picture. Northern based money and talent built this region from Day 1, and is continuing to do so in many ways. Their economy has rebounded. They were in a downturn before the rest of the country knew it was happening. Forget climate as a comparison point. Snow melts and it does get very hot for days on end in the summer months in Florida.

Southwest Florida embodies all three tips outlined for a successful marriage of talent and NE Indiana. I knew no one here professionally. I took initiative to reach out to local leaders to learn more of their needs and challenges; and to create a network. Within 72 hours of sharing a resume, having an hour long conversation, an exciting professional position was offered. 72 hours. Meanwhile, somewhere in NE Indiana a file is being created so we can think about it for another year. Apparently they saw an opportunity and they jumped on it. They saw something in experience and education that fits the direction their communities are going and need, and I am grateful. The name of the game of successful communities and regions is don’t think about it too long, or someone else will grab the opportunity. Working to improve a region is sometimes a thankless and never ending job, and I appreciate the efforts being pursued by so many to change our future for the better in NE Indiana. However, there are simple basics that cannot be overlooked in the goal of retaining talent while managing the larger picture. Doing so may find some of our best resources slipping through our hands, out the back door and down the interstate. Leading to more broken hearts and mental divorces from our communities and region by those who really don’t want to leave, but may have no other choice. Here’s to the hope Cupid may strike and the discouraged portion of the talent pool and NE Indiana find true love for our region once again.

 

 

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