More than a quarter century ago, News & Neighbor’s sister publication, The Business Journal of Tri-Cities TN/VA launched a regional program called 40 Under Forty. Its purposes were to 1) to honor professionals under age 40 and 2) to fight brain drain in the Tri-Cities. In a market this size, you will always hear some young people say things like, “To get a real career, you have to go to Nashville or Atlanta – one of the big cities.” But at The Business Journal in the early 1990s, we were starting to hear employers say, “If we want to get the best young people, we have to go outside the market to recruit, because the best ones from here leave as soon as they can.” Brain drain was starting to become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
So, The Business Journal began a program to show both sides they were wrong. By highlighting 40 rising young stars in the business community, The Business Journal showed young professionals, “Look, you can succeed in this market. Here are 40 of your colleagues who are already doing it.” Just so, The Business Journal was saying to employers, “Look, you can find great young people in this market. Here are 40 who are thriving here right now.”
Over the years, 40 Under Forty alumni have gone on to become successful entrepreneurs, corporate C-suite officers and elected officials. The Business Journal’s program, we’d like to think, may have had some small impact on fighting brain drain.
But now, the problem of brain drain has evolved. The United States economy is humming along at full employment, yet we are again hearing young people and employers echoing their complaints of the past. Brain drain now begins much earlier, because students in the secondary education system don’t understand the full range of career possibilities available to them in this region.
I don’t say that to blame the teachers or guidance counselors. The teachers have been told what tests to teach to, and their pay depends on them meeting those benchmarks. They’re doing the job we have given them. Likewise, the counselors are doing the best they can. In the 2014-2015 school year, the average guidance counselor in Tennessee had almost 350 students to advise. That number has only gone up since. Ask yourself how much time those counselors have to learn about new career opportunities in their cities and towns when they have that many students to keep up with.
Since the problem has evolved, the solution is evolving to meet it. 40 Under Forty isn’t going anywhere. It still does a great job of identifying the rising stars of the business community. But, Twenty Under 20 is dawning.
As we said, since the problem has evolved, the solution is evolving to meet it. Since the problem begins at the secondary school level, and is primarily a regional workforce problem, the solution is moving into the secondary school, workforce development space. The private sector, which has an urgent need to address brain drain in the region, is stepping up.
Streamworks, a regional initiative funded by Eastman and bearing the Appalachian Highlands regional banner, is setting out to spotlight 20 of the rising stars of the region’s secondary school population. Students will be shown exemplars of the fact it is possible to do great things here. Employers will see students from all over the region who deserve opportunities here.
“The Twenty Under 20 recognition presents a way for students to be recognized for their amazing achievements in academics, community service, leadership, and entrepreneurial endeavors,” says Dennis Courtney, executive director of Streamworks. The program, Courtney says, will show the entire region the depth and breadth of these students’ leadership and innovation capabilities as both potential employees and productive members of the community.
Streamworks is also running several other initiatives to help students reach their potential, including robotics and drone programs. The organization will host the MATE underwater robotics competition world tournament this summer (more on that to come).
Deadline for entries at streamworkseducation.com is March 1. The event is April 30.