Members of local young professionals groups are concerned that talent born and bred in Tulsa is leaving for greener pastures.
Slang for this phenomenon is “brain drain,” and though young business leaders are concerned about talent leaving Tulsa, they are not the only ones.
In her first state of the city address, Mayor Kathy Taylor said, “Attracting a workforce is the single biggest issue that current employers have told me that they are concerned with.”
Jan Figart, associate director of the Community Service Council of Greater Tulsa, Inc., said that young professionals leave Oklahoma to pursue higher wages, broader professional opportunities and better quality of life.
Figart said census data and state university studies documented brain drain as a growing problem in Oklahoma since 1999. As talent leaks from the state, however, the Oklahoma Employment Security Commission projects an 18.61 percent growth through 2008 for openings in general management and for top executives throughout the state.
A few young managers and executives of Tulsa said they perceive the opportunity for this growth, and they continue their work to grow the city to make it more attractive for management and executive candidates as demand for those jobs increases.
Nelson and the “Urban Setting”
In her state of the city address Mayor Taylor made special mention of Elliot Nelson, 27-year-old owner of James E. McNellie’s at 409 E. First St., as she spoke of the importance of small business owners taking risks for the sake of downtown revitalization.
“His businesses have become an anchor of the revival of downtown’s Blue Dome district,” Taylor said.
Nelson said brain drain is a local problem and that it has been a persistent trend in Tulsa.
“There were seven Tulsans in my class at Notre Dame, and all but myself are elsewhere now,” Nelson said.
“A lot of the really bright people from Tulsa never come back after they go off to school.”
Quality of life is the biggest cause of brain drain in Tulsa, Nelson said.
“Most of my friends (from here) have gone away to live in places where they can walk back and forth to restaurants and bars. Here in Tulsa, there’s no place you can do that. You can’t live downtown and walk to work, and you can’t really take public transportation back and forth to places.”
“It’s that urban setting that people want,” Nelson said. “Everyone says Tulsa is a great place to raise a family, but a bad place to be a single person in your 20s.”
Nelson is optimistic that the rate talent is leaving Tulsa will decrease.
“We’re getting a lot of calls from people who want to move back or are already back and they want to open something downtown, and they really want to be part of things,” Nelson said.
“We’re going in the right direction, but we need more people willing to risk a lot of money.”
As downtown resurges, Nelson said it is important to the success of new businesses not to lose touch with Tulsa’s character.
“If you do everything based on a spreadsheet, you don’t know downtown,” Nelson said.
Zenthoefer and the
Chris Zenthoefer, head of creative firm New Medio at 301 E. Archer St. and active member of ypTulsa, said brain drain is a significant local problem. However, Tulsa is on the right track to turning the brain drain trend around, he said.
“We are doing some of the right things. But we’re not there yet,” Zenthoefer said.
Zenthoefer is encouraged by downtown development plans and local university expansion. He hopes students who come from out of town to earn a degree in Tulsa will see the development here and will stay in Tulsa after graduation.
“Part of reversing brain drain is bringing awareness to it,” Zenthoefer said.
Though Zenthoefer acknowledged that brain drain is a persistent problem for Tulsa, he is confident that “ten years from now we’ll look back and say, ‘Wow, we’ve come a long way.’”
Zenthoefer touted importance of young entrepreneurs in successful downtown development and attracting and retaining a talented workforce.
“A lot of people in ypTulsa are entrepreneurial. They have their own businesses, and they’re hiring people from our age group,” Zenthoefer said.
Zenthoefer said few non-native Tulsans choose to live here.
One non-native who did choose Tulsa was Tawn Albright, who soon after arriving became an active member of ypTulsa.
Zenthoefer said Albright was a promising talent in the strategic planning and corporate development fields. Albright moved to California three months ago, though, to pursue opportunity at Ticketmaster as its vice president of development.
“He was looking for an awesome opportunity in Tulsa, and he just couldn’t find the right fit. That was a disappointing loss,” Zenthoefer said.
Albright and the Y.P. Mystique
Albright was passionate about the young professionals movement and finding ways to attract quality people to work in Tulsa.
“People in Oklahoma and in Tulsa are genuinely good people, and it’s a great climate,” Albright said from California. “It was very attractive for me to go there.”
Ultimately, Albright said he couldn’t find an opportunity in upper managementin Tulsa where he could lead and grow as a young professional.
“There’s a tight network that controls the upper-level management positions in Tulsa. I know people who work for family-based or closely held companies, and they’ve reached a plateau and are now looking to leave Tulsa,” Albright said.
“Tulsa needs more business leaders who aren’t tied to that second or third generation of wealth. Tulsa needs to be able to break out of that. It’s Tulsa’s Achilles heel.”
Albright said he looks forward to Tulsa’s future.
“The young professionals groups allow creative minds and smart people to get together and have the common goal of making Tulsa better,” Albright said. “By having that place where people can go, I think they (young professionals) will think twice about leaving Tulsa.”
If Tulsa employers could offered wages comparable to those Albright said he sees in large cities, he thinks talented young professionals would flock to Tulsa.
“How does a place like Tulsa that pays beer-budget wages get champagne service? Maybe the housing here is cheap, but at the end of the day, people still want to live well enough so that they do not feel like they are getting behind economically with the rest of the country,” Albright said.
“Tulsa has to change its expectations,” he added.
Albright said he thinks “foundation venture capital,” where a foundation’s economic return and control expectations are curbed in order to support the growth of new businesses, would draw more young professionals and spur further development.
“Tulsa is not headed for doom and gloom. We (ypTulsa) wanted to get a campaign going to make people in Tulsa feeling proud about Tulsa again.”
Brain Drain ABC’s
Mayor Taylor talked about the importance of early childhood education to a quality future workforce. Taylor plans to leverage city resources to support such programs.
Jan Figart agreed that the current brain drain problem started with early childhood education trends.
“You have to start career development with the importance of being a quality student while in the public education system, then being able to go to college, graduating from college and becoming a taxpayer in Oklahoma – all of this connects together, and it starts with preschool,” Figart said.
The mayor was alarmed at Tulsa’s high school drop out rate, which is twice the state average. Figart said one in five high school students in Tulsa county will drop out before 12th grade.
“We’re working to support education issues that jump start economic development,” Taylor said. ?