College graduates have been moving out of Oklahoma faster than they're moving in — at least, that's been the case for the past five years. The same causes of that "brain drain" are attributed by head hunters to be why corporations with high-paying jobs are reluctant to move in — and it doesn't have to be that way.
The Oklahoma City Branch of the Federal Reserve of Kansas City, in its quarterly publication Oklahoma Economist, said the recent departure of college graduate is pretty much evident, no matter what degree is obtained. The report adds that more Okies are moving to Texas than anywhere else, but Colorado, Arkansas and California are also favored destinations.
It's tempting to bring politics into the equation, and in the case of Colorado, marijuana laws. But politics per se — at least, when it comes to "red" or "blue" voting trends - shouldn't get the credit or blame. Both Arkansas and Texas tend to favor Republicans at the ballot box, but those states also offer something on which Oklahoma lags behind: An environment that is not only favorable to business in terms of the tax base, but one that will help companies recruit and keep talented employees.
Texas, for instance, has no state income tax, yet it manages to pay its teachers and other state employees far better than does Oklahoma. Aside from Austin and a few other metro hives of liberal politics, its population is conservative, but at the same time progressive. Texans see the value in infrastructure and paying living wages. Many cities in that state also invest in public transit, and the state has passenger rail. That's neither conservative nor liberal; it's just pragmatic, and it's smart.
What about Arkansas and Colorado? The physical aspects of those states tend to attract newcomers. When companies look to relocate, they look for traits their employees will like: parks, biking and hiking trails, and a wide array of arts and entertainment offerings. They also look for good schools. And while there is been a push in recent years in Oklahoma to make some improvements — such as Tulsa's The Gathering Place - we have a long way to go to compete with our closest neighbors.
Few people want to live in a state with a regressive tax code, or one that doesn't see the value in paying good wages. Until more Oklahomans see the value in investing in our young people, the drain will continue.
And there's something else to consider: Not everyone can or should attend college, and there's an increasing dearth of skilled people in the trades. In Oklahoma and elsewhere, opportunities are there for the taking in plumbing, heat and air, electric, carpentry, welding and other careers that do require getting your hands dirty. Oklahoma needs to work to keep these folks, too.
Oklahoma is a beautiful and diverse state, but it needs some work. And indeed, some of that work must start at the statehouse — and therefore, at the voting booth. We need good leaders if we're to keep good employees.