Higher Education

How one city has been tackling the swelling scourge of brain drain

As unemployment dips, competition to keep and recruit talent is intensifying

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The Chill Room at GSoft, a technology firm in Montreal that features over-the-top amenities to recruit and keep employees at a time of intense competition for talent.

The Chill Room at GSoft, a technology firm in Montreal that features over-the-top amenities to recruit and keep employees at a time of intense competition for talent.

MONTREAL — Lunchtime yoga has just ended in the Chill Room, which is carpeted with AstroTurf and furnished with beach, beanbag and Adirondack chairs, a hammock, a playful mural of the city skyline and some potted plants.

The in-house barista, Sébastien, is serving coffee that will fuel an afternoon of work at long common desks that drip with cables, library-style carrels big enough for power-napping, a conference room with a table custom-made of 36,000 Lego blocks and a meeting area with bleacher-style seating, all in a rehabbed 1913 industrial building in the Pointe Saint-Charles neighborhood with exposed brick walls, blond wood floors and floor-to-ceiling windows.

If the employees here have any stress at all, they can blow it off on the indoor skateboard ramp, the vintage videogames or the guitars strewn about one of the many break rooms, or with a round of Magic: The Gathering, a Dungeons and Dragons-style game, in the quiet of the replica Airstream trailer.

It’s a typical day at GSoft, a technology company whose meteoric rise from its founding in 2006 has required a constant supply of workers — and the over-the-top amenities increasingly needed to recruit and keep them.

At a time of rising demand and infinitesimal unemployment, that’s gotten “really hard,” said Florian Pradon, candidate experience manager at GSoft. “Really, really, really hard.”

Now many of the places that are finding it increasingly challenging to attract scarce talent are turning their attention to preventing it from leaving in the first place, responding with near panic to the suddenly rediscovered phenomenon of brain drain.

Many American states are struggling to stem a growing exodus of high school graduates who leave to go to other states for college, for example; once that happens, according to research in one largely rural state, a third don’t come back.

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Even in states that attract university and college students, graduates often pick up their degrees and move away.

That’s long been a challenge in Montreal, which has a wealth of universities but loses many of its graduates to Toronto, Vancouver and Calgary, among other places. It also means this city and the surrounding province have gotten an earlier start confronting brain drain than most other states and cities on both sides of the border, trying solutions to get its graduates to stay and investigating why it happens and what can stop it.

“We’re ahead of the game in terms of awareness of the problem,” said Daniel Weinstock, director of the Institute for Health and Social Policy at McGill University, which has received a grant of nearly 1 million Canadian dollars ($730,134) from the provincial government to study why people leave and what might make them change their minds.

The province has already taken measures such as providing capital for startups, teaching coding as early as kindergarten and requiring students in some fields to stay put after graduating as a condition of their financial aid.

The in-house café at GSoft, a fast-growing tech firm in Montreal that competes to keep and recruit talent.

The in-house café at GSoft, a fast-growing tech firm in Montreal that competes to keep and recruit talent.

“We definitely are talking a lot about that,” said GSoft’s Pradon. “The government is working really closely with the private sector, realizing what they’re losing when people move away. It’s costing money. And people are leaving with knowledge.”

He added: “Other cities may be realizing that they’re losing people, but they haven’t put the resources into stopping that. Montreal doesn’t have a choice. We’re a city of services. It’s a question of survival.”

Despite its European-style, bilingual charm, Montreal has been facing this problem for decades. More Canadians have left it and the surrounding province of Quebec every year since 1963 than have arrived there, according to the Institut de la statistique du Québec. As recently as 2014, twice as many moved out than moved in. Only thanks to international immigration has the population grown.

That’s given Montreal something of an inferiority complex, which flared with the separatist movement that peaked when sovereignty was narrowly rejected by a referendum in 1995. Even today, gift shops at Pierre Elliott Trudeau International Airport sell T-shirts that read, “Montreal vs. Everybody.”

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“It’s just the long history of having to defend ourselves against the rest of the country,” said Samantha Denzler, one of Pradon’s colleagues at GSoft, where her title is employee experience specialist.

Samantha Denzler, employee experience specialist at the Montreal tech firm GSoft, in the Chill Room where employees go to relax.

Samantha Denzler, employee experience specialist at the Montreal tech firm GSoft, in the Chill Room where employees go to relax.

What Montreal and Quebec are doing in response — making financial aid contingent on graduates staying put, offering startup funding to entrepreneurs, having experts study the problem and propose additional solutions — may serve as a model for U.S. places that are also suddenly rediscovering brain drain and scrambling to confront it.

With a record 7.1 million job openings, some 46 percent of American employers can’t find workers they need, the highest proportion since 2006, according to ManpowerGroup’s Talent Shortage Survey. A dearth of people with the right skills is the top problem for the small businesses that employ half of all U.S. workers, a Gallup survey found.

In Utah, the chairman of the State Board of Regents testified before the legislature that the shortage of skilled workers was so severe that his own financial-services company had to hire people from India. New Mexico saw a net loss of 42,000 people from 2011 to 2016, including 17,000 with much-needed bachelor’s degrees, the University of New Mexico Bureau of Business and Economic Research found.

Vermont is offering $10,000 to people who move there to work remotely; the plan takes effect in January. Maine is offering a tax credit to help college graduates who relocate there repay their college loans.

It’s to universities and colleges that many states have mostly turned to stem this flow. With nearly half of Illinois high school graduates leaving to go to college out of state, for example, the University of Illinois System has frozen tuition for a fourth straight year “to keep them here at home to study and to use their talents to move our state forward after they graduate,” as the system’s president, Tim Killeen, put it. Starting next year, the state will spend $25 million on new scholarships for residents who stay in Illinois for college.

A study of brain drain from Illinois found that a third of students who go elsewhere after finishing high school don’t come back. In Michigan, a survey found that an even higher proportion — 42 percent — of residents who did graduate from public universities in that state still planned to leave. So did about half of non-residents who studied there. Officials have launched a campaign to try to talk them out of it, called Choose Michigan.

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In many places, the more advanced a graduate’s degree, the more likely he or she will take it somewhere else.  In Montana, for example, 84 percent of associate degree holders and 67 percent of bachelor’s degree earners remained in the state one year after graduating, but only about half of doctoral recipients, state data show. Nearly four out of five doctoral recipients who attended Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio State, Penn State and Purdue universities and the University of Wisconsin left those institutions’ states, research published in the journal Science found

Cecilia Rodriguez is studying to become a nurse practitioner at McGill University in Montreal. As a condition of her financial aid from the province, she is required to remain in Quebec for three years after graduating.

Cecilia Rodriguez is studying to become a nurse practitioner at McGill University in Montreal. As a condition of her financial aid from the province, she is required to remain in Quebec for three years after graduating.

All of these trends have far-reaching effects on the economy, and worsen divisions between areas where it’s growing and those often rural or declining industrial regions where it’s not.

The largest flight of high school grads who leave the state for college, however, is from New Jersey: 31,561 of them last year, or more than half, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

This is part of what the New Jersey Business and Industry Association calls an “exodus” that resulted in a net loss of population of 682,062 from 2005 to 2014, with a multibillion-dollar economic impact. It included 57,566 people aged 18 to 34 — in part, the industry association said, because of high tuition at New Jersey’s public universities, which the College Board ranks as the nation’s fourth most expensive.

A bill approved by the New Jersey Senate would set in motion an investigation into why so many people leave, and what might be done about it; it’s awaiting action by the General Assembly. Gov. Phil Murphy has proposed allocating $12 million to give $8,000 each toward their student loans to people who stay for at least four years in New Jersey science, technology, engineering or math-related jobs.

Quebec already leverages financial aid to keep its graduates in some fields, such as health and medicine, from leaving.

Cecilia Rodriguez — whose family moved here from New Mexico — is required as a condition of her grant to stay for at least three years after she finishes her program at McGill to become a nurse practitioner.

“It’s an incentive and sort of motivation,” said Rodriguez.

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Nathan Ladd is in his final year of studying immunology at McGill University in Montreal and plans to get a graduate degree in computer science, two subjects in extremely high demand. “I’ll go wherever the best offer is,” Ladd says.

Nathan Ladd is in his final year of studying immunology at McGill University in Montreal and plans to get a graduate degree in computer science, two subjects in extremely high demand. “I’ll go wherever the best offer is,” Ladd says.

But Montreal’s experience also proves that, in an increasingly mobile age, there are some intractable things that push students to leave.

“Long-term, I can’t really see myself living here for the rest of my life. Number 1 is winter,” said Manuela Parra-Lokhorst, an international development major in her last semester at McGill.

Nathan Ladd is in his final year of studying immunology and plans to get a graduate degree in computer science, two subjects in extremely high demand. “I like to think that if there’s a place I want to go, I’ll be able to,” Ladd said outside McGill’s main library. “I’ll go wherever the best offer is.”

And Graeme Denhoff-Ball plans to take his master’s degree in business administration to a broader stage. “There’s a lot more opportunity in Toronto,” Denhoff-Ball said. “I’m also ambitious. I want to go to the big city and test my mettle against everybody else.”

Montreal can’t change the weather or the fact that it’s smaller than Toronto. So it’s turned to carving out a reputation in specific industries — artificial intelligence, videogaming — that trigger the interests of the people it wants to stay.

“If you just focused on those things, I think people have gotten the message that Montreal is the place to be,” said Weinstock, at McGill.

“Montreal doesn’t have a choice” but to reverse brain drain and keep talent from leaving, says Florian Pradon, candidate experience manager at GSoft. “We’re a city of services. It’s a question of survival.”

“Montreal doesn’t have a choice” but to reverse brain drain and keep talent from leaving, says Florian Pradon, candidate experience manager at GSoft. “We’re a city of services. It’s a question of survival.”

Employers have certainly focused on it. “That’s been kind of like a magnet,” said Paul Raymond, CEO of the Montreal-based information technology consulting firm Alithya. “If the projects aren’t cool, the techies won’t stay.”

Related: More high school grads than ever are going to college, but 1 in 5 will quit

Raymond, who is also president of the Quebec Technology Association, said the private sector has collaborated on this more than he thinks happens in American states and cities.

“Communities have to come together and come up with a plan,” he said in a conference room outside his 24th-floor office in downtown Montreal, with a lineup of champagne bottles on a bookshelf each representing a big contract or an acquisition. “Specialize in one thing and say what makes you different.”

Quebec now has Canada’s highest proportion of people aged 25 to 34 with degrees in science, technology, engineering and math who work in science and technology occupations, the government agency Statistics Canada reports. And the flight of Canadians from the province has slowed; last year, 28,738 left, while 22,232 arrived.

“Anybody who thinks that Montreal is going to become the economic center of Canada again, that’s not going to happen,” said Weinstock. “So Montreal, having been in the doldrums for decades, no longer being the banking and financial services capital, has had to reinvent itself. Which is what medium-sized cities have to do: They have to identify sectors where they can thrive.”

That requires “trying to make the economic backdrop as attractive as possible,” said Doug Porter, chief economist of the BMO Financial Group in Toronto. “If you try to force students to stay and the jobs aren’t there, nobody’s going to be happy.”

There’s another trend emerging that could reverse brain drain, Porter said: Cities that once drew talent, on both sides of the U.S.-Canadian border, have become expensive and crowded, encouraging college graduates to look for other places to settle.

“In Toronto, and I’m sure it’s the story in a lot of U.S. cities, congestion is a pain,” he said. “Maybe that’s the answer — for these smaller communities to sell their simpler, lower-cost lifestyle. That could attract some folks.”

In fact, Toronto and Vancouver have fallen to the very bottom of the Statistics Canada Life Satisfaction Index, while Montreal now comes in respectably above the average.

“Fortune,” Weinstock said cheerfully, “will reward the ingenious.”

This story about brain drain was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our higher education newsletter.

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