You’ve seen them — around the Chesapeake campus, walking through downtown, moving into the house just down the street. They’re young professionals, people in their mid-20s to mid-30s, who’ve chosen to build their lives in Oklahoma. And their numbers are growing.According to Advertising Age, the percentage of Oklahoma millennials — or people age 25 to 34 — rose by 12.2 percent from 2000 to 2010. Our state ranks fifth in the nation for increases in that key demographic, a predictor of economic growth. “This age group is critical to a state’s future because they represent the next wave of new families, new homebuyers and big spenders,” the magazine noted in July. “Over the next 10 years, they will move into the 35 to 44 cohort and increase their average household spending by 23 percent, a jump of more than $10,000 per household.” It’s no accident that Oklahoma’s millennial population is increasing. In the early part of the 2000s, state and community leaders recognized the need to attract young people to the state and retain those who were born here. “We specifically asked young people what would make a difference in convincing them to come here,” said Dana Shadid, former executive director of the Oklahoma Community Institute. “It was very interesting what they said, things just as basic as quality-of-life issues, beautification issues.” And jobs. In 2006, the Greater Oklahoma City Chamber launched a program called Greater Grads, which aims to connect college students and graduates with Oklahoma employers through internships and career fairs. Tulsa has a similar program. The idea is that once young people realize how much Oklahoma has to offer, they won’t want to look anywhere else. “We’ve learned from the college kids,” said Drew Dugan, the chamber’s vice president of education and workforce development. “At first we thought all they’d be interested in was the night life and what was happening downtown.” Instead, they said, “What about jobs?” Oklahoma’s job market suffered less than many other states’ during the economic downturn. The combination of career opportunities and affordable living is attractive to young professionals, he said. “We’ve got the jobs. We’ve got the great lifestyle,” he said. “Why should they leave?” Josh Waddell, career services director for Oklahoma City University, has steered students into Greater Grads and mentored two of them from Alaska and Arkansas. Waddell grew up in Oklahoma, went away for college, lived out of state for about 12 years and then came back. “Most students look mostly at the jobs,” he said. “They don’t do as good a job about researching the intangibles as far as quality of life and commuting. ... I took a train and a subway and walked and spent an hour and 45 minutes a day commuting for six years. That was miserable.” Students who’ve grown up in Oklahoma may not realize how lucky they are to have easy commutes and plenty of affordable housing, he said. Out-of-state students are more likely to recognize those benefits. Other programs, such as LOYAL — acronym for Linking OKC’s Young Adult Leaders — provide professionals under 35 with access to business and civic leaders, mentors and networking opportunities. The program includes a series of short sessions teaching leadership skills for volunteers. Class members also participate in a community project. “I love that program,” said Christy Zelley, deputy director of Leadership Oklahoma City, which provides the LOYAL program. “It’s so hard for young people to meet new people after college, and this is a good way to do that and network, too.” The Oklahoman talked to some millennials about why they chose to stay.
Jodi Lewis, 30, PiedmontLewis, a native Oklahoman, worked with Shadid at the Oklahoma Community Institute after graduating from Oklahoma State University in 2004. “At that point, it seemed like the ‘brain drain’ term became really popular,” she said. “People were always saying we’re losing our best and brightest to places like Dallas. That was really offensive to those of us who chose to stay. “We’re buying homes here. We’re getting jobs here. We’re growing our families here. I felt as if they weren’t sending the right message. We want to keep all our best and brightest here, whether they’re from here originally or came here for college.” In her work for the institute, Lewis surveyed students pursuing particular majors at a variety of Oklahoma colleges and universities. Among other things, she asked where they planned to live after graduation. Nearly all students seeking master’s degrees in business administration planned to leave Oklahoma, she said. Pharmacy and optometry students said they’d go wherever the jobs were. Others, including those studying education and economics, wanted to stay within 25 to 30 miles of their current locations. For her, leaving Oklahoma wasn’t a consideration. “It’s the sense of community, I think,” she said. “It seems a little more personal here. I know Oklahoma City is becoming more and more enticing to people in my age group. You’ve got Bricktown. You’ve got the Thunder, relatively low crime rates, housing fairly stable and relatively low unemployment. “No one in my peer group is unemployed right now. ... I’ve got friends who live and work in Dallas, and to go visit them, everything seems so expensive. Your dollar can go so much farther here.” She thinks Oklahoma offers more opportunities for advancement, too. By age 26, she was executive director of the institute, a statewide nonprofit. She served three years on Piedmont’s city council. For the past several months, she has been executive director of a Christian charity group, Revive Inc. She plans to step down and join the board. “I purchased a Lawn Doctor franchise last fall,” she said, “so I’m in the process of getting it up and running. We picked a good time. ... There was no winter to speak of, so we are blessed that there are a lot of weeds this year. We’ve gotten a high number of clients.” Lewis’ territory includes Edmond, Jones and Arcadia. She hopes to expand into northwest Oklahoma City at some point, but that’ll have to wait: She and her husband are expecting their second child. “We’re going to wait to find out if it’s a boy or a girl,” she said. “It’s kind of the last great mystery out there for us.” She remains committed to life in Oklahoma and thinks others will be, too. “If the state can keep new college graduates with good opportunities and play up the great quality of life that Oklahoma City and Tulsa offer, once they’re married, you’re going to keep them forever,” she said.
Chad Previch, 31, Oklahoma CityPrevich is well-known to The Oklahoman. When he left his native Michigan at age 23, he came to work for the newspaper. “Before I graduated from Michigan State (University), I applied to The Oklahoman, and they hired me on as an intern,” Previch said. “It turned out that the internship was basically a job interview for a full-time job. They hired me, and I’ve been in Oklahoma ever since.” Michigan’s economy was struggling long before the meltdown of 2008. Previch cast his net wide, fearing he wouldn’t be able to find work in his home state. Oklahoma seemed the most attractive option. “Oklahoma City was in the initial stages of enjoying the success of MAPS when I moved here,” he said. “Now, the city has become much more than MAPS. While people across the country read about the city’s economic success on Top 10 lists, we actually get to experience it living here each day.” His love of Oklahoma has turned him into an evangelist of sorts, spreading the word about what our state — and the capital city in particular — has to offer. “I know this sounds really cheesy, but there’s this energy in the city, whether it’s downtown or anywhere you go,” he said. “People have a positive outlook about everything. Our economy is good. Even with the economy being down so many other places, we just keep moving forward.” Previch left the newspaper in 2007 and was hired on at Saxum, an Oklahoma City-based public relations firm, as an account supervisor. Now he has accepted a job at Devon Energy Corp. He lived for a time in the Deep Deuce area and formed friendships with a variety of Oklahomans — including other Michigan State alums. “We get together every weekend to watch the games and talk about life back home,” he said. “But we also root for the Thunder, OU and OSU.” Although he misses his family, Oklahoma has become home. “It’s just an exciting time to be here,” he said. “Bricktown, obviously, is a huge attraction for people, and it’s kind of a selling point. But there are pockets of momentum throughout Oklahoma City. “You can see it when you drive through town. You can feel it when you talk to people. And for young people, too, the Thunder was a huge get for the city. I think it does something for people across the country when they see that Oklahoma City name. Maybe they never thought of us as a big league city before, but now they see us differently.”
Lauren Toppins, 30, EdmondToppins participated in the first year of the chamber’s Greater Grads program. She remains involved as one of the program “emcees” — building agendas, writing speaker biographies, introducing speakers and guiding students through the process. “We had 282 interns last year,” she said. “Seventy-eight employers were involved. Interns were from 49 colleges and universities and 21 different states. We had international students, too. ... The whole thing about Greater Grads is showing people the best of Oklahoma City, so I get to see and learn something new all the time. “There are so many entrepreneurs in Oklahoma City, and a big part of Greater Grads is a really big career fair with Oklahoma employers. ... You get to sit there with all these different business people and watch the students line up to show them their resumes.” The system worked for her. Toppins, a Lawton native, comes from a long line of Sooners. After earning an undergraduate degree at the University of Oklahoma, she continued there for law school. Toppins joined Greater Grads after that, interning and then getting a job at a now-defunct Oklahoma company. She also went through the LOYAL program. Contacts she made there helped her get her current job at Paycom. She started the growing company’s legal department and is now the staff attorney and human resources manager. “I don’t think I would have had these opportunities elsewhere,” she said. She did consider moving to another state. She and her husband, a district landman for Chesapeake, thought about relocating to Texas. “A handful of my girlfriends all went to Dallas,” she said, “so we looked at that. I felt strongly about Oklahoma City, though. So did my husband. His mom is here. We have a daughter who’s 2½. It’s important to us to stay close to family. ... “I really enjoy the lakes here, even Lake Arcadia. I love the art museum downtown. ... There are interesting restaurants we go to. We’re big OU fans, so our entire season is spent down there. The Thunder, we go every time we can get tickets. Our daughter went to her first game when she was 6 months old. She’s looking at cheerleaders and Rumble while we’re watching the game.” Ultimately, the decision to stay wasn’t difficult. “This is a great place to raise a family,” she said. “There are just good people here.”
Jodi Lewis, 30, Piedmont
Chad Previch, 31, Oklahoma City
Lauren Toppins, 30, Edmond