"Brain-Drain" Has Been Plaguing the State for a Decade. How Could Roe V Wade Complicate the Issue?

May 10, 2022, 6 a.m. ·

University of Nebraska-Lincoln Campus from the air
University of Nebraska Campus

Nebraska is losing college educated residents at a rate of about 2,000 people per year. Nebraska Public Media News reporter William Padmore asks those who track “brain-drain” what’s being done about it and how a reversal of Roe v Wade could affect the issue.

25 year-old Emma Craig was born and raised in Lincoln. She loves it here. Most of her friends and family live here, and she loves the sense of community.

“I joke with my friends and my husband and co-workers that it is literally impossible for me to go to The Mill or the Haymarket or even go to the grocery store without running into someone that I know,” Craig said.

Emma Craig wears a white button down in a field of sunflowers. She's smiling, wearing jean shorts, black rimmed reading glasses and dirty blonde hair
25-year-old Lincoln Resident Emma Craig plans to move out of the state this summer. (Photo Courtesy of Emma Craig)

Craig graduated from the University of Nebraska with a double major in Global Studies and French. She’s even bought a house here.

But, as much as she loves Nebraska, she also plans on leaving.

“I was kind of assessing where I wanted to go, not necessarily geographically, but just kind of in my life, and realized that the opportunities for growth that I was looking for did not exist here,” Craig said.

This summer, Craig is moving to Washington D.C to earn her Master’s in Public Policy. Then, she wants to be a policy analyst, something she says she can’t do in Nebraska.

“The opportunities for such a niche work don't really exist here as much as they do in other places,” she said.

When she does move, Craig will be an example of “brain-drain”.

Josie Schafer is the Director of the University of Nebraska - Omaha’s Center for Public Affairs research and tracks brain-drain.

Josie Schafer smiles wearing a black blazer and red undershirt. A University of Omaha pin is stuck into her right shoulder
Josie Schafer, Director of the University of Nebraska at Omaha's Center for Public Affairs Research ( Photo Courtesy of the University of Nebraska)

"When we talk about brain drain, we usually want to talk about the net domestic migration of those with a bachelor's degree or more,” Schafer says.

According to the center’s research, Nebraska has been suffering from “brain-drain” for at least the past decade. Degree-carrying residents have been leaving the state at a rate of about 2,000 people per year.

“To put that in perspective, we have over 1.9 million people here in Nebraska. So 2000, leaving the state every year is not an especially high number, but it is certainly our most educated workforce,” Schafer said.

She adds says job opportunities and pay are the top two reasons for brain-drain in Nebraska.

Omaha Center For Public Affairs Research
(Graphic provided by the UNO Center for Public Affairs Research)

That partly explains why Emma Craig and people like her want to move to Washington DC. But there’s another reason why Craig wants out. Days after an unofficial Supreme Court opinion overturning Roe v Wade leaked to the media, she says she told her husband she didn’t want to live in a place where her abortion rights aren’t protected by law.

“I was just flat out like, ‘Listen, I know that both of our families are here. I know that we grew up in Nebraska, but like, if this goes into effect, I don't want to live here,’” Schafer said.

Political climate or culture doesn’t even rank among the top 5 reasons why people like Craig leave a state, according to UNO’s research. But when the Omaha Chamber of Commerce and UNO surveyed young professionals in 2019 they found that nearly half of respondents do care about their community’s values and culture.

Omaha Chamber of Commerce Survey Showing Many Young Professionals Care for the Culture of their Community
(Graphic provided by the Omaha Chamber of Commerce)

Since the leaked Roe v Wade opinion was published, the chamber says its aware of the potential of future abortion restrictions to affecting “brain-drain. But Ana Lopez Shalla, the Chamber’s senior director of workforce development, says the organization hasn’t given an official opinion yet

“I can't comment on that right now, I haven't talked with my public policy team. So I don't know what that looks like…I think that that would be a conversation that we would have to have, internally with our executive committee, with our other committees and stakeholders to understand the depth of the impact of this as a workforce and talent retention and attraction issue,” Lopez Shalla said.

It should be noted that, as of now, the legislature has not passed any laws significantly restricting abortion in the state. Last session a bill that would have banned most instances of abortion fell to a filibuster. But with almost half of the unicameral’s seats up for grabs in November and a more aggressive conservative majority could still enact such a law.

Until then, Lopez Shalla says the Omaha Chamber of Commerce continues to focus on developing and (hopefully) retaining talent through the state’s internship and apprenticeship programs. Lopez Shalla says just last session a combined $30 million was approved to beef up the effort.

Ana Lopez Shalla smiles crossing her arms wearing s sleeveless dress with a V-cut and shoulder length-blonde hair
Ana Lopez Shalla, senior director of workforce development for the Omaha Chamber of Commerce (Photo Courtesy of Ana Lopez Shalla)

“And we've hopefully done a good enough job of telling them not only how valuable we think that their talent is, but showing them a clear pathway as to how they can continue to manifest and grow that talent here in their own backyard,” Lopez Shalla said.

Talk of “brain-drain” does come with a few caveats. For example, Lopez Shalla notes the statistic doesn’t count highly skilled and highly paid people in the state without a college degree. And while about 2,000 degree-carrying workers leave the state every year, Josie Schafer with UNO says over 400,000 degree holders that have decided to stay. Also, “brain-drain” is just one indicator of the state of the economy, so Schafer says we shouldn’t put too much weight behind it.

“Do we want to understand why people will get a bachelor's degree and choose to leave the state rather than work here? Absolutely…But it's important to recognize that there are tons of folks with bachelor's degrees here in Nebraska working,” Schafer said.

As for Emma Craig of Lincoln, she says she would love to come back to Nebraska one day after she leaves. But depending on what comes out of the legislature in the next year, she may give up the idea

“I want to raise my family in a state that values bodily autonomy,” Craig said, “And I cannot do that if Nebraska has banned abortion”

No one can say for sure how abortion restrictions in Nebraska will affect brain-drain. But for now, city chambers and leaders will see if current efforts will be enough to help keep Nebraska’s most educated workforce.

Graphic Showing the Persistence of Brain drain in Nebraska
(Graphic Courtesy of UNO's Center for Public Affairs Research)