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Low Wages, Sparse Opportunities Worsen South Dakota Brain Drain

John Tsitrian reported back in April on the Congressional Joint Economic Committee’s study of brain drain, which showed that South Dakota is worse at keeping and recruiting highly educated residents than most other states.

Now South Dakota News Watch picks up the depressing data:

Despite years of effort to reverse the trend, South Dakota remains among the worst states in the nation in terms of losing its most highly educated citizens to other areas of the country, according to a new report from Congress.

…According to the study, called “Losing our Minds: Brain Drain Across Across the United States,” South Dakota’s most highly educated citizens are moving away at a higher rate than in nearly every other state. The report also contradicts the commonly held conception that highly educated people leave the state in their 20s and return in their 30s to raise families [Nick Lowrey, “S.D. Among Worst for ‘Brain Drain’ as Highly Educated People Continue to Flee the State,” South Dakota News Watch, 2019.08.22].

The JEC report notes that brain drain happens everywhere: in every state, highly educated people make up a larger percentage of people who move away than of people who stay (although in Wyoming, that gap is only 0.1 percentage points. But eighteen states are able to attract enough of those smart movers to counter their percentages of smart leavers. The only adjoining state in that fortunate category is Minnesota; the five states with the greatest relative brain gain are Maryland, Illinois, New York, Massachusetts, and, the best for brains, California.

The JEC has data showing that South Dakota once had net brain gain—in 1960, when we were doing better than Minnesota at replacing our smart leavers with smart comers. But brain drain has prevailed in South Dakota in every other decade, from 1940 to now, with the highest net brain drain in the last two decades.

So why is South Dakota coming out at the bottom of the competition for highly educated workers? Madison native, teacher, and linguist Jeremy Rud says he’s seeking diversity and opportunity:

“I don’t have any specific vendetta against South Dakota, it’s just that my specific cultural tastes lie elsewhere,” Rud said. “I also want a greater diversity of ideas, languages and access to the rest of the world.”

…Another part of his decision to move was a lack of opportunity to advance in his career field. He said he’s not alone in his desire for better opportunities.

“I have so many friends that have a master’s degree that now live in Minnesota,” Rud said [Lowrey, 2019.08.22].

Special education specialist LeighAnn Dunn still lives in Vermillion, but she commutes to Sioux City every day to teach because South Dakota doesn’t pay for expertise:

She said the higher pay, incentives for continuing education and good job security offered in her current position are more than worth the extra commute and even paying income tax in a state where she does not reside.

…Dunn said many of her classmates have left the state in pursuit of higher pay.

“I can’t imagine myself coming back to teach in South Dakota, which is bad because I’ve got a lot of training and a lot of expertise,” Dunn said [Lowrey, 2019.08.22].

Nick Kelly took his Mines degree and his family to Minnesota because he and his wife could both find a variety of engineering jobs in Bloomington but not here:

Nick Kelly, 28, who holds a master’s degree in engineering management from SDSM&T, said the decision to leave South Dakota mainly had to do with a lack of job options, the absence of a large airport and lack of cultural opportunities.

…Kelly said that while he was in school and looking for jobs at engineering career fairs, he was disappointed to see that most in-state jobs dealt with chemical engineering in the ethanol industry. He wasn’t interested in those. Most of the other employers at the job fairs weren’t recruiting for positions in South Dakota, Kelly said.

“There just weren’t very many opportunities,” he said.

A Mitchell-based company did offer him a job after he graduated, Kelly said. The offer wasn’t good enough to keep him in the state in part because his wife wouldn’t have been able to pursue her own career goals there. Kelly now works for an electronics company that designs equipment which makes shipping packages more efficient, a job he said he wouldn’t have found in South Dakota [Lowrey, 2019.08.22].

Now if highly educated people are more likely to move, one could try to stem the out-migration of South Dakotans by discouraging them from higher education. But that would not change the failure of the state to attract all those smart movers from elsewhere.

South Dakota won’t reverse this unhealthy demographic trend by wishing brains away. We lose more of our brightest and attract fewer of our neighbors’ brightest because we don’t pay enough, we don’t offer a variety of jobs, and we don’t welcome a variety of people.


  1. John Tsitrian 2019-08-26 07:35

    Personally, via extended family and via friends, I’ve see this first hand. This should be reason number one for some of us being appalled by the political status quo in South Dakota.

  2. MJK 2019-08-26 10:18

    I have seen this trend too. My 3 college educated children left SD and will not return. Ages 20’s -30’s young women. For myself, I may eventually move permanently for a warmer climate. I don’t think this trend will ever change for South Dakota for a number of reasons. Politics plays a big part and a lack of diversity and cultural experiences. The young educated career person has a different view of the world and the people in it. They are open-minded. Career people also like ocean and mountains & esthetic places to live and they find good jobs so they can afford it.. They like opportunity for adventure and for travel and to experience new things. To stay in South Dakota, one has to like the plains, farms and fields, either or west or east side (cities) of the state where the most growth is. There is fishing and hunting in SD but that’s not for everyone. You also have to like winter. Minnesota has winter; but they offer more of everything else, so they can draw career people. You mention above that “we could discourage them from higher education” and then, they would stay here–that is like saying dumb-down which is insulting to those residents that stay here, as I do feel there are lots of smart, educated, well-intentioned people that live in South Dakota and were born here; and like the laid-back life style and are content. But, I see the younger generation as less content, with that life style choice.

  3. Cory Allen Heidelberger Post author | 2019-08-26 12:27

    So John, how do we overturn that political status quo when so many of the educated, talented South Dakotans who could help us overturn it face much less resistance to achieving a good life for themselves and their families by taking jobs in Bloomington, Boulder, and Berkeley?

  4. Cory Allen Heidelberger Post author | 2019-08-26 12:28

    MJK, same question as to John—is there anything that can overcome all of the factors that you see as endemic to South Dakota culture? How did Minnesota overcome similar factors? How did Colorado?

  5. John Dale 2019-08-26 14:55

    Some factors at play here.

    In South Dakota, there are troves of people with more money than brains who believe money is a substitute for intelligence, cleverness, and innovation. By changing this perception and acknowledging that intellectual property factors into net worth, South Dakota could attack the root cause of the problem; disrespect for the intelligence and too much respect for the wealthy. The only way this works is through character assassination and rumor mongering to discredit a person and destroy their reputation – easy to do if a person has money.

    I have experience in this issue first hand. In/around 2015 I reached out to NASD with a fantastic operational idea. Rather than being embraced and welcomed for the possible contributions I could make to the Cannabis legalization movement in SD, I was threatened with law enforcement and civil action if I didn’t back-off.

    The result is that we are not working together and I am now leading the SD legalization movement as the tip-of-the-spear. That said, most people in my position would just leave, but I’m an amalgamation that befuddles the wealthy/powerful.

    When we character assassinate the intelligent who do not have the resources to dump into legal council, we stave-off the smart folks and end-up with morons driving the wagon, failure, bad policy, and lack of progress.

    When (or if, I suppose) you think about it, it’s pretty trivial to have more money than brains, a shifting calculus.

  6. Moses6 2019-08-26 16:26

    Waiting for my last child to leave,No good paying jobs teachers undderpaid,three down and one to go.Wish them all double their wages from leaving the state that says we came to die not to buY.Had union job that paid well other wise I would have left.

  7. Debbo 2019-08-26 22:55

    I have 5 siblings, all of us born and raised in SD. 2 still live there in the Black Hills.

    Cory neatly summarized SD’s problem:
    “We lose more of our brightest and attract fewer of our neighbors’ brightest because we don’t pay enough, we don’t offer a variety of jobs, and we don’t welcome a variety of people.”

    The SDGOP likes it this way. Makes it easy for them to maintain power and slurp up taxpayer dollars.

  8. Debbo 2019-08-27 00:16

    Today’s Strib has an article, timely for us, about what Gen Z wants in a workplace. (The oldest Gen Zers are 22 this year.)

    “Saddled with debt, this group is aware of widening income disparities and expects to earn more equitable wages.

    “They reject the top-down corporate hierarchy even more radically than millennials.

    “And they are turned off by hiring practices and corporate cultures that don’t reflect a broad view of diversity — race, class, gender, religion, sexual orientation, identity.

    “Don’t discount ‘soft skills.’ Christian Moreno Cova, a rising junior at University of Minnesota Duluth, is a business analyst intern at McKinsey & Co. He’s majoring in jazz piano — not finance or economics — and that sometimes trips people up.

    “’The great thing about jazz is we learn to think on our feet,’ he said. ‘We learn to improvise and we learn to communicate through more than just words.’

    Be authentic. Ollie Kalthoff, a student at Century College, is an aspiring activist, and identifies with the pronouns ‘them/their.’ ‘A lot of people in my generation tend to think of networking as this big terrifying thing: I have to dress up real nice, shake people’s hands in the right way, make eye contact,’ Kalthoff said. ‘But really it’s making a genuine relationship. Making a new friend in a bit more formal of a setting.’

    “Take recruiting efforts off the beaten path. Jazmine Logan, a program assistant in the Minneapolis Department of Civil Rights, is a millennial and first-generation college graduate. She said HR managers have good intentions but need to ask different questions about diversity, career goals. Show up at the multicultural center, or meet with affinity groups, such as women in STEM. It’s ‘a show of intentionality,’ she said. ‘I’m already in a safe space.’

    “Take an active interest. Lulu Bauermeister works as a project manager in corporate social responsibility, strategy and operations at U.S. Bank. She believes in ‘connection before content,’ which roughly means not launching into a dry pitch before having a genuine chat about company values. And maintain that relationship once young professionals are on the job. ‘If the manager is invested in my personal and career growth, I’m much more likely to stay with the company,’ she said.”

    Sounds a lot like what we’ve been saying here on DFP.

  9. Debbo 2019-08-27 00:17

    Should be quotation marks in front of “Be authentic”, 7th paragraph.

  10. Donald Pay 2019-08-27 09:57

    I love South Dakota, but…. You can fill it in with any number of reasons.

    We were the people who came back after going out-of-state for graduate degrees. We came back knowing we would be making half of what we could get elsewhere. We thought we could contribute a lot to our home state. There were no jobs in the state for us at the time, so we created our own, and made a quarter of what we could get elsewhere. We sacrificed, took survival jobs, drove wrecks, and lived in hovels. We had a child. We had roots, but twenty years of this was enough. When the child went out of state for college, that was the end of my desire to sacrifice to live in South Dakota.

    We knew about the racism, the arrogance of the political elite, and the ingrained corruption. We thought we could help change that. Maybe we did a little, but not enough. After 20 years it becomes revolting, and you have to get away. You find out there are places where you can just live.

  11. Porter Lansing 2019-08-27 13:36

    Just read the comments from the folks who cling to Pat Powers opinions. They’re 95% anonymous because they’re 95% embarrassed about who they are and what they think. SD is a personal truth, lockbox of the citizen’s emotions and goals. So much gets hidden and swept under the rug. That’s a big reason I refused to raise a kid there.
    * PS … GALT (Taken from “Who is John Galt?”) explains much of SD. ~ Germans Are Like That.

  12. Barry G. Wick 2019-08-27 15:16

    There were many reasons why I moved to Iowa following the passing of a parent I cared for in the final years of life.
    1. I retired at age 62. Medical needs necessitated that I find a state with access to the Affordable Care Act. South Dakota was not one of them.
    2. The cultural and educational level of the State was not supported by the South Dakota Legislature with a consistent attitude toward improvement.
    3. Some Legislators refuse to join the 20th century and refuse to allow the citizens the right to control their own bodies.
    4. Some Legislators still consider the citizens of South Dakota nothing more than cattle to be controlled and prodded.
    5. The South Dakota Legislature attitude toward youth and young people is one of superiority when it comes to human and civil rights. Legislators refuse to believe that young people can think for themselves.
    6. Some legislators believe that the death of thousands of Americans is not an issue of guns. Yet, guns seems to be around when people are murdered. And often murdered in numbers it is impossible to fathom. They are unwilling to do anything about it.
    7. Many legislators believe that the environment must be tamed and exploited instead of treated by the State’s citizens with a stewardship attitude.
    8. Many Legislators have no experience with people from other cultures and religions and therefore believe that “one size fits all.”
    9. Modernization seems to be the last thing on the minds of many of the State’s leaders. The world is overtaking their small minds as they continue to believe they are in charge, that they control, and that the people do not.
    10. The attitude of many South Dakotans is one of disdain for science and all that science has discovered. They’ll use the benefits of science to further their backward ideas, concepts, and religions…but they won’t make any effort to appreciate the contributions of science in all its forms and the need for investment in science.

    These are generalizations. Yes. Not all South Dakotans are the way I’ve described some above. However, there aren’t enough forward thinking citizens in the state to overcome the backward concepts that still exist in the state, so, there is a constant battle between progressive and regressive forces that often does not result in any forward movement.

    That’s generally why I moved to Iowa. It’s why I acquired my education out of state in more formative years. I returned to care for a family member that was unwell and wasn’t able to fully manage their affairs. I gave up 20 years for that purpose, for the most part. During that entire time I couldn’t wait to leave the State of South Dakota once again. The best and the brightest of my Class of 1970 no longer live in South Dakota. Some return after the greatest parts of their lives have been beneficial to other states…and in some cases, other nations.

  13. Porter Lansing 2019-08-27 16:07

    Hear, hear Mr. Wick. 👏🏻👏🏻👏🏻

  14. Debbo 2019-08-27 17:22

    In addition, most women don’t like being treated like immature girls who can’t be trusted to make their own decisions.

  15. John Dale 2019-08-27 18:47

    Debbo – no need to get sexist.

    “most PEOPLE don’t like being treated like immature girls who can’t be trusted to make their own decisions”

    This is why I’m so against the Chinese total surveillance state.

  16. Roger Cornelius 2019-08-27 20:13

    Here comes John Dale with his favorite irrelevant hobby horse.

  17. Debbo 2019-08-27 21:28

    Dale, that’s not sexist, it’s fact.

    Sexism is not the topic of this post so if you want to chase after an issue you’re creating, I’m not going along. Just go ahead and have the last word, because that seems to make you very happy.

  18. Cory Allen Heidelberger Post author | 2019-08-27 22:09

    John, the problem is, you interrupted the conversation with a poor example. NASD is neither wealthy nor powerful; they are as oppressed by the true power of the state as you and the rest of us who seek change.

  19. Cory Allen Heidelberger Post author | 2019-08-27 22:14

    Debbo, looking at the quotes from the young workers/aspirants you cite, I’m struck by how much more interested they seem to be in relationships at work than I am. I don’t seek a manager who thinks one whit about by personal or career growth. I seek a manager who pays me well for work well done on the clock and who then leaves me alone to pursue my own personal growth after I clock out.

    But I’m from another generation.

  20. Cory Allen Heidelberger Post author | 2019-08-27 22:18

    We miss you, Barry. South Dakota should miss you… but alas, many South Dakotans would probably mutter a resentful “Good riddance” and go back to trudging along behind their theocratic leaders toward the Divine Prosperity their gospel keeps promising but never delivering, just like the cult leaders who promise the End and the Second Coming, again and again, for just a few dollars more, and finding some outsider to blame for fouling each prophecy….

  21. MD 2019-08-27 23:35

    I now live one state to the North.
    I moved here for graduate education, expecting to return.
    I married a local and found high quality employment working on addiction policy and response.
    I don’t know how I could ever replicate what I have done here in South Dakota.
    North Dakota, despite having a largely similar demographic and political makeup, has made human services and prevention a policy priority.
    I can get clients on Medicaid Expansion.
    If they have a barrier to treatment, they have a gap coverage program for people with substance use disorders.
    I can bring private addiction treatment providers into our jail to start someone with a program that they can continue on release.
    I can refer people involved with the criminal justice system to a care coordinator and peer support professional to support their time on probation and reduce the prison population.
    I am starting a (legal) syringe service program to establish contact with a hard to reach population and prevent the spread of disease and provide connections to treatment.
    I will soon be able to refer clients on Medicaid for peer support services which are reimbursed.

    All of these were the product of policies passed by a republican super majority legislature and republican governor.

    Sure I could get employment doing the same thing in South Dakota, but why would I frustrate myself working with the consequences and frustrations of poor policies, when instead I can see the fruits of our (ND) labor?

  22. John Dale 2019-08-28 01:59

    Cory – regarding NASD, I just reviewed a FaceBook conversation I had with NASD I had four years ago. I’ll stand by my comments. At that time I found the group to be unjustifiably litigious with access to resources beyond me (legal, law enforcement, and financial).

    For what it’s worth, the point of my post was that NASD at that time had “more money than brains”, not that they had access to some kind of deep well of limitless money pit like some of our neoconservative Republicans and neoliberal Democrats.

    My opinion is that NASD is part of an establishment here in South Dakota. My personal track record is that the leadership of NASD is willing to ignore the ideas they’re never really heard from people they have never really met; a recipe for putting off and frustrating the brains.

    The result has been the absence of legislation on the ballot for several election cycles. For NASD to own this wouldn’t be the end of the world. The other night I read over the current proposal from NASD. If I might be blunt, strategically it misses the mark pretty badly and reflects either a refusal to understand the politics of South Dakota or an ignorance in understanding the political sphere here. Either way, I think they need two things in their organization that, at one time or another, they have scared away; courage and brains.

    My analysis of the NASD proposal can be found in the Spearfish City Limits Internet Radio Broadcast at .. I’m sure there is nothing new in there, though, that you haven’t already contemplated yourself.

  23. John Dale 2019-08-28 02:02

    Debbo – I found this to be out of context and off topic, but maybe I’m wrong.

    “most women don’t like being treated like immature girls who can’t be trusted to make their own decisions”

    You’re saying that this is how South Dakota treats its women and it results in a brain drain?

  24. John Dale 2019-08-28 02:11

    The top story on The Black Hills Pioneer today: “Deadwood gaming hits a jackpot in July”.

    I can’t help but think about what a difference it would make if the people who gamble on slot machines instead invested in entrepreneurs here in South Dakota.

  25. Di Torson 2019-08-28 10:33

    And dare I say, our politics reflects this brain drain and lack of diversity. We have diversity in this state. We have Native Americans rich in their culture and thinking. South Dakota continues to ignore this. Instead, South Dakota continues to stigmatize and imprison the Native American population every chance it gets.

  26. John Dale 2019-08-28 18:08

    Di Torson – I agree, the solutions are obvious. Cannabis is a nice first step.

  27. Roger Cornelius 2019-08-28 18:50

    John Dale needs his own blog.

  28. Certain Inflatable Recreational Devices 2019-08-28 19:46

    “most women don’t like being treated like immature girls who can’t be trusted to make their own decisions”

    You’re saying that this is how South Dakota treats its women and it results in a brain drain?

    John Dale, I’m not going to speak for Debbo, but I think it’s how SoDak treats its women, and it results in many of them moving to a more humane place. The SoDak Taliban’s insistent march toward imprisoning women in an existence of condescension and humiliation is…, well, I can’t characterize it without language Cory won’t allow.

  29. John Dale 2019-08-28 20:17

    Roger Cornelius – “his own blog”

    Yeah .. I should look into that. :) I think that as a content/idea producer I have to stow my pride and go where the people are reading. We are all fortunate that Cory is here .. otherwise we’d only have the overly sanitized, stale, uncontroversial and uninteresting puff pieces in the local rags.

    Certain Inflatable Recreational Devices – “most women..”

    Makes sense. The tension between the sexes is like a pendulum of control. In other species, not just humans, gender-dominance changes hands. There was a famous psychological experiment done by a rather flamboyant and controversial acquaintance of mine, Phillip Zimbardo. He demonstrated that whoever is in charge is bound to persecute, and whoever is not in charge is predisposed to subvert. It’s called The Lucifer Effect.

    I think the moral of the story is that balance and equality of power might solve the problem of persecution; stopping the pendulum.

  30. John Dale 2019-08-28 20:18

    PS – democracy! Everybody gets only one of the currency .. THE VOTE.

  31. Debbo 2019-08-31 22:37

    Rural Minnesota is having a “Brain Gain.”

    Many resident recruitment efforts were inspired to start because of [Ben Winchester, a St. Cloud-based University of Minnesota Extension rural sociologist] research showing that rural Minnesota towns aren’t just experiencing a “brain drain” of people in their 20s but also a “brain gain” of people 30 to 49 years old. Only a third of newcomers are returning to hometowns, so most are putting down new roots for the quality of life and cheaper housing, he said.

    Winchester and others are updating his research — results of a survey of 20,000 people across 20 counties will be released this fall — but so far, he said, his work across the state shows that the “brain gain” trend that started years ago is continuing.

    “No place is immune,” he said. But “how welcoming is your town is the Number 1 question I get.”

    ‘Rural isn’t dying’

    Many of the six regional Initiative Foundations, first established by the McKnight Foundation three decades ago, are trying to tap into the shift.

    Towns from Ely to Worthington are actively welcoming newcomers, changing to accept the differences of younger generations, providing the amenities that newcomers desire, etc. That the state as a whole is known to be more generous and welcoming certainly helps too.

    The towns share information from surveys and studies on why people ages 31-49 move from more urban to more rural areas and then act accordingly. It’s working.

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