Boomerangs combat brain drain, plus advice for winning talent over larger cities

06/13/2023

By Holly Riddle

Photo: The Corner Room

“Having experienced another city, I came to realize that Happy Valley is a true gem,” Katelyn Stark said of her move back to the area to take a job at Restek in human resources following a stint on the West Coast.

“I grew up in State College and went to Penn State, so Happy Valley has always been home to me. After several years here [and] after receiving degrees from Penn State, I left for a career opportunity on the West Coast,” she explained. “After a few short months away, I was offered another job that would allow me to return to State College and jumped at the opportunity.”

Having experienced another city, I came to realize that Happy Valley is a true gem.

Stark is an example of a common phenomenon among Happy Valley professionals: a boomerang, someone who leaves and later returns to Happy Valley, lured back by a thriving business ecosystem, exceptional career opportunities, quality of life and more. Sometimes boomerangs have grown up here; other times, they’re Penn State alumni who long to build a life in a place they grew to love as college students.

“Between the amazing and innovative organizations that call the Central Pennsylvania region home, the friendly and welcoming people and proximity to other cities, it has so much to offer young professionals,” Stark said.

Advice for preventing brain drain

Boomerangs are helping Happy Valley combat a statewide issue of talent leaving for career opportunities elsewhere, aka “brain drain.” In 2019, a report from Congress’s Joint Economic Committee found that brain drain particularly affected a handful of states, Pennsylvania among them, and where brain drain occurred, political and cultural divisions were exacerbated. More recently, numerous publications have reported on larger scale, post-pandemic brain drain, like Time Magazine’s 2022 article about young talent seeking opportunities abroad.

At Ben Franklin Technology Partners, Kate Alward, Director of Human Resources & Training, is one of the people working to prevent brain drain from occurring in Happy Valley.

She noted that young talent, especially recent graduates, don’t account enough for the higher cost of living in large cities when being lured by higher salaries. To combat this, local businesses can be proactive in educating candidates about the cost of living in Happy Valley compared to bigger cities, and how the difference can impact major milestones like investing in a first home.

I’ve had more success here than I think I would have elsewhere, because of the connections that I have been able to forge in this wonderful community.

That said, Alward said local employers should consider the point of view of young talent and make sure salaries and benefits are competitive and that career growth opportunities are clearly defined and promoted in the recruiting process.

Gallup conducted a survey in 2016 that said 87% of millennials are looking at career growth as their most important quality in a job. I think all of our companies could do much better in terms of providing a real career path [to employees]. That’s difficult to do when you’re a small employer, but being able to define a career path, being able to walk people through where they could be in a few years and to keep them engaged with that path with ongoing training — I think that would go a long way,” Alward explained.

Alward also suggested that employers offer remote or hybrid work options, especially for prospective employees seeking flexibility for childcare.

Finally, Alward stressed that companies should not focus only on young, college-educated talent. She suggests seeking talent of all ages, graduates of trade and business schools and individuals with unique or relevant experience who might be pursuing other, non-traditional career paths.

Why talent should take a closer look at Happy Valley

Restek’s Stark has a suggestion to those comparing career opportunities in Happy Valley to opportunities outside the area: simply look a little deeper.

“I would encourage everyone to dig a little deeper and you will soon see the number of innovation organizations that call Happy Valley home. I’ve had more success here than I think I would have elsewhere, because of the connections that I have been able to forge in this wonderful community,” she said.

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  1. I came back for many of these reasons. I'm a PA native and PSU grad ('82). After a 20 year Navy career which took my family to numerous wonderful locations around our great country we had the opportunity to come to State College to begin my 2nd career. I turned down much higher paying defense contracting jobs in the DC area when I accepted a position at PSU. Why? So I could provide my family the quality of life we wanted. Life is full of decisions. My wife and I are convinced we made the right one moving here 21 years ago!

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