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Oklahoma's young professionals indicate likely economic growth

Oklahoma's increasing number of young professionals are an indicator of future economic growth.
BY KEN RAYMOND kraymond@opubco.com Published: October 23, 2011
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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 AdvertisingAge, the percentage of Oklahoma millennials — or people aged 25-34 — rose by 12.2 percent from 2000-2010. 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 35-44 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 our 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. But they kind of cut through the crap and 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, 29, Piedmont

Lewis, 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.

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This age group is critical to a state's future because they represent the next wave of new families, new homebuyers and big spenders.”

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