LSU Graduate Photo

LSU leadership and human resource development graduate Aimee Ardonne throws up her cap for a photo Saturday, Aug. 21, 2021, on the ramp of the Pete Maravich Assembly Center in front of Tiger Stadium on N. Stadium Drive in Baton Rouge, La.

Before Alexandria native Dylan Govender took his TOPS-funded computer engineering degree from LSU to Washington D.C., his professors, parents and friends encouraged him to do so, or risk getting stuck in Louisiana.

“Pretty much no one recommended staying,” Govender said. 

He took their advice, moving two days after graduating in May and starting a job with a consumer goods company based in Ohio.

Govender misses what most Louisianans would: the food, culture, his friends and family. But at his new job, he feels challenged by his work. He can take a train to New York anytime he needs, and he feels his new home shares more of his values.

“In engineering, the professors are like, ‘Get out of here if you want to do anything meaningful,’” Govender said. “My parents, when I told them I was leaving, they were sad but they were like, ‘Yeah, you got to go.’ They were even thinking of coming to live with me here.”

Pushed by a lack of professional job opportunities and pulled by the lure of big cities elsewhere, young people are leaving Louisiana, often with a college degree—and their parents are encouraging them to do so.

Louisiana has long been an exporter of college-educated young adults. The state has the second-worst net outmigration problem among college-educated residents compared to the other nine Southeastern states—behind Mississippi only—according to data compiled by Gary Wagner, an economist at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. 

Texas pulls young graduates from Louisiana more than any other state. From 2007-2017, Louisiana lost over 17,000 young graduates to Texas. Other popular destinations include Colorado, Arkansas, Virginia and California.

Sixty percent of East Baton Rouge parents want their children to settle outside of the parish as adults, up from 45% in 2019, according to the Baton Rouge Area Foundation’s 2021 survey for its CityStats project, which has been measuring quality of life in the parish for 13 years. Respondents cited lack of opportunity, crime, poor quality of life and racism as the main reasons.

In the latest survey, only 7% of parents say they want their children to stay.

“I don’t think my children, if they stay here, are going to earn or live to their full potential,” said Jill Michelle, a Baton Rouge mother of two boys. “They’re going to be held back here.” 

Michelle comes from a long line of Louisianans, dating back to at least the 1800s. She plans to move to Colorado with her family once her oldest son graduates high school, which would make her the first of her immediate family to move out of the state for good. 

It isn’t an easy decision. She wishes her children could stay near their family and enjoy the state’s unique blend of culture and food. But state officials haven’t done enough to make the area an attractive place to start a career and family, Michelle said, citing a lack of jobs and poor education system.

Baton Rouge business owner Meredith Beth-Wiggins feels the same. She encouraged her son to go out of state for college, though he decided to stay and attend LSU, where he’s currently a senior.  

“Louisiana is always going to be here,” Wiggins said. “He can come back and settle if he wants. While he’s young and doesn’t have anything tying him to the state, [he should] spread his wings and explore.”

Wiggins and her husband recently opened Cheba Hut, a casual marijuana-themed restaurant that is part of a chain of 50 locations in 14 different states commonly found in college towns. They also own a bakery that supplies local coffee shops. 

“We stay because we feel like there’s a culture in South Louisiana that we want to change,” Wiggins said. “We have invested our time and money back into the economy here. Hopefully we can help.”

At the Baton Rouge Area Chamber, an economic development organization operating in nine parishes around the capital area, Kelly Bienn and Andrew Fitzgerald work on connecting college students to Baton Rouge businesses. 

They say there are plenty of professional opportunities in the Baton Rouge Metropolitan—students just aren’t aware of them. 

Larger companies have entire teams dedicated to “talent pipelines,” Bienn said, using marketing resources to attract talent from around the country. In Baton Rouge, the average business owner is also running the company’s social media. 

“One thing that has been tough is for smaller and mid-sized businesses to get access to LSU or Southern (University) students or BRCC or any of those schools,” Fitzgerald said. “These are small five- and 10-person companies. They aren’t great at marketing and PR. That’s not what their strength is.”

In 2020, around 82% of Baton Rouge businesses were either sole proprietorships or had between two and nine total employees, according to youreconomy.org, a business database. 

Despite having access to over 50,000 college students from three schools, including the state’s flagship university, small and mid-sized businesses in the capital area struggle to find students, Bienn said. 

“That is frankly unacceptable when we have the state’s flagship in our backyard,” Bienn said. “We don’t want Baton Rouge to not even be on the table for consideration, because right now for so many students it’s not. It’s not even top five when they’re looking for a place to launch a career.”

Govender spoke to recruiters from the company he currently works for his freshman year of college. They reached out to him again his senior year and offered him an internship that led to a full-time opportunity. 

“I didn’t really find this job. It more like found me.” Govender said. “Of all the companies that reached out to me, 99.9% were outside of Louisiana. They were sending me t-shirts and water bottles. A small company [in Louisiana], if all they sent me was an email it probably just went to spam.”

Brain drain, the phenomena of highly training or intelligent individuals emigrating from an area, affects most states in the South, except for Texas, which has diversified its economy and become home to three large cities rife with opportunities, all relatively close to home for Louisiana graduates. 

Other states like New York and Illinois are retaining and attracting educated adults, according to a report by the congressional Joint Economic Committee. 

Jobs in engineering and tech are especially in demand in the Baton Rouge area. Government efforts to attract tech companies to Louisiana have been met with some success. 

The state has bolstered computer science programs in recent years, including at LSU, to attract talent to IBM in Baton Rouge, where roughly 50% of employees are Louisiana natives, according to the company. 

“Our labor market can’t take 12,000 new [degree holders] every single year,” Fitzgerald said. “But we need to retain more than what we are.”

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