Young people who moved away to build their careers in the early aughts are seeing new potential to contribute—and flourish—in their home cities.
Who could blame him? The engineering student had a job offer with Microsoft in Seattle, offering him a healthy paycheck, an attractive lifestyle, and technical skills that would lead to future top jobs in Washington, with activist groups such as MoveOn.org. Michigan, beginning a slump that would last for the better part of a decade, couldn't offer him that.
Gilchrist is far from alone in taking this path. It's fitting that he left Michigan in 2005. It's the year young people started fleeing for jobs elsewhere. Starting in 2005, more people ages 22 to 34 left Michigan than came in, according to census data. At its lowest moment in 2006, 68,000 young people moved away from Michigan. And while those numbers have improved gradually in recent years, the state was still losing millennials as of 2012. And worse, the millennials who were leaving Michigan at a highest rate were those with a bachelor's degree or more.
Michigan is in the midst of a brain drain. Young people leave their home state for better career opportunities, more efficient and widespread public transportation, and an attractive urban routine. But there are some native Michiganders who have decided to make the move back home despite the state's stigma, bucking the decade-old trend. Gilchrist is one of them.
After nine years, he finally decided to come home in July. Gilchrist always planned on returning to Michigan, it was just a matter of time. Like many people from the area, he never really lost his pride in Detroit. He speaks fondly of his younger years growing up on the east side of town. And despite moving to the suburb of Farmington when he was 8, he still went to the city several times of week to visit his grandparents, participate in after-school programs, and compete in basketball leagues. As he jokes, "I probably played on every basketball hoop in the city of Detroit."
And when he thought he had done enough elsewhere, building a network and skill set not necessarily attainable in his home state, he decided to come back. And now he wants to be part of Detroit's comeback. Gilchrist is the deputy technology director for civic community engagement for the city, connecting residents through open data and digital access.
"There is a really big opportunity in Detroit to create a new model for revitalization and development and inclusion," the 32-year-old says. "I want to tell a different story about Detroit. I want to be able to say that in Detroit, we did it right. In Detroit, we did it in a different way. In Detroit, we did it in a way that took everybody into account."
The decision to move back to Michigan is not always as sentimental or as functional as the path Gilchrist took. For many, it's financial. This is how it was for Brian Sadek, a 32-year-old assistant general counsel for the Wayne County Airport Authority. After graduating from the University of Michigan, Sadek moved to Chicago for law school and to start his career. After a few years, and at good stages to move in their careers, he and he wife listed several cities that they could imagine living in that would be cost-effective and had a thriving urban core. Detroit ended up being their choice.
"It just so happened to be where I was from," says Sadek. "It was really more of a rational, economic-based decision than one that was based on following our hearts. If you look at my wife's and my student loans, and you put that in our monthly budget with our mortgage, we're able live a standard of life as if we weren't saddled with the loans like so many of our generation are saddled with."
Detroit, for its part, seems to be on a different trend than the rest of the state. While the city's population has shrunk by 26 percent since 2000, the number of college-educated residents under 35 has increased by 59 percent, according to 2011 census data.
But Detroit wasn't Steve Cronk's destination. It was Midland, a town of 42,000 people appropriately in the middle of the state, for the 25-year-old mid-Michigan native. He and two of his childhood friends returned to Michigan to create Aberro Creative, a marketing agency that specializes in Web and graphic design, advertising, video production, and promotional consulting. He worked in Washington for the last three years, leaving a prominent political communications firm on K Street.
"There's an underserved market," Cronk says. "There was a need for the stuff that we were doing. In Washington, D.C., you can't walk down 14th Street without bumping into a Web developer. There are practically no Web developers in Midland. There are tons of video producers in Washington, D.C. There's one or two companies in Midland that produce videos."
For people like Cronk, it's not that they're drawn back home solely because of some societal incentive, like family. There's a business hole to fill. Cronk is providing a sophisticated marketing mentality to underserved businesses in the area. Just as many rural towns across the country need doctors, many small towns need entrepreneurs. And it takes less money to start these companies there.
"For people looking for a more traditional career path or looking for something with a little more status or an immediate paycheck after college, there's a stigma that says you need to leave Michigan to do that," Cronk says. "But the small number of people who want to create something new and take some risks while they're young, those are the people who are coming back to the area."
All three men are filling gaps that Michigan needs for a functioning state: Gilchrist has advanced technology experience, Sadek provides legal aid to an important transportation hub, and Cronk gives smaller companies and nonprofits marketing strategies they need. Moving back home to Michigan not only boosted their careers, but arguably helped their home state by reversing the brain drain and filling the leadership vacuum left in the wake of the financial collapse. While they are still going against the trend, Gilchrist lobbies Michigan expats around the country not to give up on coming home.
"The thing that breaks my heart the most is when I have friends or hear people who are from Detroit who say they'll never move back to Detroit," he says. "There is a way to contribute, and I want people to not close themselves off to thinking about what that can look like for them."
Correction: This article has been updated with the correct year Gilchrist left Michigan.
This piece originally appeared in National Journal, an Atlantic partner site.
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