by James A. Bacon

California has a lot of problems, including a dysfunctional political system, structural budget deficits and a lousy business climate. But it’s still a magnet for some of the world’s most talented scientists and engineers. According to a new Milken Institute study, “What Brain Drain? California among the Best in the U.S. at Retaining Skilled Workers,” the Golden State had nearly the best record among the 50 states for retaining skilled workers. Between 2000 and 2009, roughly 35% of skilled (college educated), native-born Californians lived outside the state, compared to 50% for the average state.

And how did Virginia fare? Not very well. Roughly 53% of skilled native-born Virginians lived outside the state during the same decade. Bottom line: Skilled Virginians are more likely to leave their home state in search of opportunity and a better life than other Americans are.

California’s Achilles heel has been its ability to lure skilled, native-born Americans into the state. But it has more than compensated by its ability to attract skilled, foreign-born workers — and to retain them at a much higher rate than the national average. (It’s not clear from the numbers how many move back to their own countries, as opposed to other states in the U.S.) Virginia, conversely…. not so good. We retain skilled, foreign-born workers at a lower level than the national average.

The Milken study warns that California must avoid complacency. Technology clusters are developing in other regions of the country — Texas, in particular, has an even better track record of attracting and retaining skilled workers.

Californians also should be alarmed by the mounting dissatisfaction of many businesses, a problem highlighted in a Wall Street Journal op-ed published today by Steve Malanga. California perennially ranks near the bottom of “business climate” surveys, and nobody’s perceptions seem more negative than those of California businesses themselves. He writes:

According to a poll by a California coalition of businesses and industries, 84% of executives and owners said that if they weren’t already in the state, they wouldn’t consider starting up there, while 64% said the main reason they stayed was the difficulty of relocating their particular kind of business. For several years in a row, California has ranked dead last in Chief Executive magazine’s poll about states’ business environments.

Despite their unhappiness, most businesses stay. And the access to human capital is undoubtedly a major reason why.

Meanwhile, Virginia may revel in its “best state for business” awards but outside of Northern Virginia, the state’s economic performance plods ahead roughly in line with the national averages. We may excel at traditional, ’70s-era corporate recruitment, which may account for 20% or so of new job creation, but Virginia still has no coherent policy to recruit and retain top scientific, technical and entrepreneurial talent — the so-called creative class so critical to economic growth.

At least we can look forward to the completion of the Longitudinal Data System that will allow researchers to track the movement of Virginians of varying levels of educational achievement into the workforce and in/out of the state. One day we’ll be able to routinely conduct the same kind of analysis as the Milken Institute, though at a far greater level of detail.  Maybe we can start thinking seriously then about our own Brain Drain.

Share this article


(comments below)


(comments below)


16 responses to “Virginia’s Brain Drain”

  1. U.S. State GDP
    (millions of USD)
    — World 58,133,309
    1 United States 14,119,000
    2 Japan 5,068,996
    3 People’s Republic of China 4,985,461[2][3]
    4 Germany 3,330,032
    5 France 2,649,390[4]
    6 United Kingdom 2,174,530
    7 Italy 2,112,780
    —> 8 California
    —>30 Virginia 406,798
    31 Sweden 406,072
    32 North Carolina 400,483
    33 Georgia (U.S. state) 396,177
    34 Austria 384,908
    35 Norway 381,766
    36 Michigan 374,234
    37 Saudi Arabia 369,179
    38 Massachusetts 366,406
    39 Washington 339,465
    40 Iran 331,015
    41 Greece

  2. Groveton Avatar

    You don’t need many guys like this but you need a few.

  3. we need folk like him but we also need for the bottom 1/3 of our population to get a sufficient education so they can earn a living, support a family, and not need entitlements.

    Guys like him will end up having to pay horrendous taxes if we don’t get our workforce education house in order.

  4. Indeed, the VLDS will help us understand the migration patterns of Virginians. and non-Virginians for that matter. I think though, once we establish what the patterns are, we need to spend a lot of time thinking about is really in the Commonwealth’s best interests.

    For example, we know that doctors are more likely to stay in the region where they performed their residency than either the state they came from or where they went to medical school. As a matter of state policy, do we really care about the geographic origin of our practicing physicians as long as we have enough?

    We also know that a number of students that come from outside Virginia to attend college and graduate from a Virginia public institution stay in Virginia and become residents. Because of state policy on tuition, these students pay a premium to do so. It seems to me, we should embrace these “new Virginians” and be far less concerned about educating and retaining native Virginians, at least in our rhetoric.

    My hope and goal is to use the VLDS to improve education policy in such a manner that we can improve education and workforce policy, while not losing the ideals of the importance of education beyond training. The commitment to liberal arts that our institutions have maintained is a large part of why Virginia is as successful as it is.

  5. Tod, you raise an important perspective that could profoundly change the logic of state support for higher ed in Virginia. Traditionally, support for higher ed has been justified on the grounds of making college more affordable and accessible for Virginians. End of story. Now you’re talking about using it as a tool for recruiting human capital to Virginia — making higher ed, in effect, an adjunct to economic development in the Knowledge Economy. Very few people are thinking that way right now. But it’s the kind of conversation we need to have. I can’t wait for the LDS to come online!

  6. Groveton Avatar

    Tod and Jim:

    I am very excited about the implementation of the LDS. As I understand things, it will be a great tool for public policy.

    However, it will only be a tool. And it will only apply to Virginia. We already have reasons, as Jim outlines, to see that talented Virginians are pre-disposed to leave the state. Two immediate questions emerge:

    1. Does the designation of “state” convey any real meaning in this context? I don’t work in Virginia. I work in Fairfax County, which just happens to be in Virginia. If Virginia gave Fairfax County to Maryland tomorrow I wouldn’t move. Trying to pin questions of talent migration back to states is a mistake. Few people come to study and work in Virginia because it is Virginia. They come to universities, they come to communities, they come to regions. They do not come to states. The sooner our ultra-arrogant General Assembly begins to understand this, the better.

    2. “The commitment to liberal arts that our institutions have maintained is a large part of why Virginia is as successful as it is.”. Tod, I just can’t buy that. Virginia is successful because of its proximity to the federal government. It is successful in spite of policy for higher education, not because of that policy. I have nothing against a liberal arts education. However, conflating a commitment to liberal arts with economic success is a big mistake. The real question should be whether Virginia’s institutions maintain a proper balance between liberal arts and applied science. In my opinion, they do not maintain that balance. Most Virginians would quickly assume that Virginia has better colleges and universities than Maryland. In the case of leading Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) programs Virginia is a distant second place to Maryland.

  7. Groveton Avatar

    Sorry, one more comment. I run a high technology company with people in Cambridge, MA – Reston, VA and San Francisco, CA.

    I get to see how technology entrepreneurship really works in these places. Three observations:

    1. Northern Virginia is miles and miles behind Cambridge, MA and SanFrancisco, CA in technology entrepreneurship.

    2. Virginia’s higher education policy is a major impediment to technology entrepreneurship in Northern Virginia.

    3. Our elected representatives in the General Assembly are fundamentally clueless regarding anything having to do with technology or technology entrepreneurship. Mark Warner had a clue but he’s off to the national scene. Caren Merrick is a real breath of fresh air as she seeks election to the state senate from the 31st district running against “bureaucracy-as-usual” candidate Barbara Favola.

    Virginia will be in very deep kim chee once the inevitable federal spending decreases hit. Those decreases will clearly reduce growth prospects in Northern Virginia and Tidewater. This, in turn, will force reduced state budgets which will negatively affect the Richmond area.

    Decades of willful neglect have left Virginia is a very precarious position. Our quite terrible General Assembly has driven Virginia down a very bad road. However, there are glimmers of hope. Bob McDonnell’s willingness to address the problems which Tim Kaine ignored is a big step in the right direction. The emergence of non-political-class candidates like Caren Merrick will help.

    The big question is whether the nascent transformation in Virginia’s state-wide politics will happen fast enough to counter-balance the coming federal spending crisis.

  8. Groveton, you hit the nail on the head: “The big question is whether the nascent transformation in Virginia’s state-wide politics will happen fast enough to counter-balance the coming federal spending crisis.”

    You also raise a good point about the significance of “the state” in understanding the mobility patterns of skilled workers. As you say, people rarely choose to move to “states.” They choose to move to metropolitan regions, or perhaps to communities within regions. My hunch is that the researchers who take advantage of the VLDS will come disproportionately from Northern Virginia, not Emporia or Big Stone Gap, and that they will use data to help them understand NoVa labor dynamics. The VDLS tool will be available to anyone who wants to use it, whether they want a state-level analysis or a regional analysis.

  9. of course – the obvious question not answered here is that …IF it BENEFITS Virginia to have out of state (yes that does mean something in this context) come to Va higher ED should be incentivize it and provide a lower tuition rate for out-of-state students?


    ha ha ha.. I bet that idea won’t go far ……

    Groveton mentions Cambridge, Mass.. It turns out that out of all the states Massachusetts does best at insuring a high percentage of their kids are educated to NAEP “proficiency” standards and that when Mass alone is ranked against the other industrialized countries – it does well …whereas if Va is rated against the other industrialized countries – we SUCK.

    If Va wants more skilled workers – why should we chose to import them over our own in-house resources that we fail to provide an effective education?

    NEWS FLASH – Kids with good IQs … ARE…. Educable – EVEN IF THEY LIVE in economically disadvantaged circumstances in geographically poor parts of Va.

    why are they an abandoned resource?

  10. Groveton, you wrote:
    “The commitment to liberal arts that our institutions have maintained is a large part of why Virginia is as successful as it is.”. Tod, I just can’t buy that. Virginia is successful because of its proximity to the federal government. It is successful in spite of policy for higher education, not because of that policy.

    I think you are reading more into my comment than what I said. I didn’t attribute success to “policy for higher education.” I referred specifically to institutional commitments. This is a different thing. The various public institutions do not pretend that their policies always represent state policy. Nor did I refer to “economic success.” Virginia is successful in a number of ways besides the economic.

    As for the VLDS applying only to Virginia. This is true. But only for a time. There is a small group of us from across the nation who wish to take the VLDS model and make it happen nationally. I believe this will happen.

  11. Groveton Avatar


    A national approach would take the VLDS from interesting to fascinating. I would be particularly interested in results tracking students from University of Maryland, the three schools at Research Triangle Park, University of Texas, University of Colorodo at Boulder, Michigan, Berkeley and the Universities of Georgia and Florida.

    My specific interest is the migrations of students from good universities that are either a) co-located with areas of economic power or b) separate from areas of economic power.

    My guess is that states with their universities located closer to places of economic power keep more of the graduates in state.

    Your data would let me know if I am right.

    Oh, let me add the University of Illinois – both in Urbana-Champaign and Chicago to that list.

    Good luck with your work.

    As for assuming that “success” meant “economic success” – I am guilty. I am not sure what other measure could be applied at the state level? Health? Happiness?

  12. Groveton, some day we will be able to answer your questions, and many others.

    As to success, I see Virginia as being successful in terms of having the types of opportunity that are available to its citizens: good schools (though not good enough for the future), good to great institutions of higher education (public, private, private for-profit), a state government that doesn’t and can’t suffer the nonsense we saw last summer in Wisconsin and elsewhere. Virginia is a place to business, where experiments can be done in the public arena, as well as the private, and in partnership. And more reasons. I am particularly proud of VCU Health System and a beneficiary of the work of world-class doctors.

    I’ve lived across the nation: Oklahoma, Missouri, Tennessee, Alaksa, Illinois, Oregon, and Virginia. I think Virginia is a successful state for a lot of reasons.

  13. oh, and let me say one more thing. While I think Virginia is successful, as a citizen and a state employee, I am not satisfied. I think can, and should, continue to improve.

  14. Les Schreiber Avatar
    Les Schreiber

    Richmond is home to one of the best ad agencies in the country,Martin Agency.VCU has one of the best communications graduate programs in the country as well as on of the best art programs.

    Why do we not have a mini Madison Ave.? Has no one in government read Elizabeth Currid’s work on how the arts make a significant contribution to the economy of NYC A little to innovative for the Old Dominion?

  15. Les, I haven’t read Elizabeth’s Currid’s work, and I doubt that many Virginia policy makers have. What is her argument?

  16. Groveton Avatar

    Tod: I am a life long Virginian. I am not satisfied either. I travel extensively and have seen better job creation efforts elsewhere. I am particularly concerned about the potential consequences of a federal spending slowdown.

    Les: Your question is exactly right. Our government must do more to incubate business by establishing the right environment for new business formation. It is not sufficient to hand out tax breaks to the odd company considering relocation. Virginia’s political elite needs to think in terms of multi – decade long efforts to foster innovation.

Leave a Reply