Christian Fong is in San Francisco, but he left his heart in Iowa.
“I’ll be an Iowan forever,” the 36-year-old CFO of an energy start-up said by phone recently.
The former Cedar Rapids business executive’s departure from Iowa after co-founding Renewable Energy Trust in 2011 is an all-too-familiar story and, in his case, ironic. Six years ago, Fong was one of the original members of the Generation Iowa Commission. The members, all younger than 35, were charged with exploring ways to retain, attract and engage young Iowans.
“So, yeah, I guess that makes me the poster child” for Iowa’s brain drain problem, said Fong, whose company is involved in commercial solar finance.
Fong and others appointed by then-Gov. Chet Culver believe they had some success in identifying issues contributing to the flight of young Iowans. The commission was proposed by a handful of legislators – all younger than 30, who were concerned that Iowa’s loss of young, single, and college educated residents from 1995 to 2000 was second only to North Dakota.
“We had high hopes,” said Andrew Wenthe, who floor managed the Generation Iowa bill in the Iowa House. “We weren’t hearing much dialogue about the fact we were at or near the bottom in retaining young professionals. We weren’t hearing ideas about addressing it and certainly didn’t hear anything more than ideas.”
Now, 35 and vice president for external affairs at Upper Iowa University, Wenthe said the commission provided data on the issue of brain drain and possible solutions that helped lawmakers.
Mitch Gross, now a Coralville City Council member and Iowa City West government teacher, believes that in its short life — Generation Iowa was discontinued by the Legislature in 2011 — the commission was successful in shining a light on the problem.
“But there wasn’t a lot of follow-through from the Legislature and the governor’s office,” said Gross, who soon will be 38. “That was very frustrating. We developed policy recommendation, but it was hard to get those ideas out of legislative committees.”
Kyle Carlson of Colfax understands Gross’ frustration, but as a lobbyist for Planned Parenthood of the Heartland, the slow pace of the legislative process didn’t come as a surprise.
“Making good public policy takes time,” said Carlson, who will be 33 Monday. It didn’t help that there were mixed signals about support for the panel’s recommendations and that the next session of the Legislature was dominated by flood recovery issues.
“Still I think we did a lot of good going around the state and making young people feel like they could be heard, that someone was listening,” he said.
One of the legislative successes, according to Jodi Grover, 30, who splits time between her job at Upper Iowa University in West Des Moines and rural Buchanan County, was passage of a law calling for more young Iowans on state boards and commissions.
“That gives us a different perspective,” she said.
Carlson and Rachel Dozark Judisch of Lake View think that bringing attention to underlying factors of why young professionals move out of Iowa, such as the high student debt load carried by Iowa graduates, may have been the most important take-away from the commission’s work.
“We put the issue of student loan debt and its impact on jobs and employment decisions at the forefront,” he said. “Our message was that Iowa had to focus on jobs that young Iowans could afford to take … that allowed them to live and pay back student loans.”
But brain drain is still real, Judisch said. Now 35, married and the mother of two, she sees the same problems today that she did as a member of the Generation Iowa Commission.
“The reason I got involved – the problem of brain drain – I still deal with on a daily basis,” said Judisch, who has a master’s degree in speech therapy and is a regional vice president for Blue Stone Therapy Solutions in West Des Moines. “In my little world, we can’t find enough educated, qualified professionals. We still have great difficulty attracting and retaining therapy professionals.”
Generation Iowa didn’t stop brain drain, said Grover, who also works as a clerk in the Iowa Senate, but its efforts led to small successes by encouraging efforts to address the issues in various ways in communities around the state.
“I’m always excited when my grads tell me they’re staying in Iowa,” she added.
If there is a silver lining behind the brain drain cloud, Judisch said it may be that many expat Iowans want to return. Research shows that at about age 32 people start coming back, she said.
Fong was older than that when he left Iowa, but the Underwood native said he will “come back as soon as I can figure out how.” Fong commuted between Cedar Rapids and San Francisco for a year before relocating because his investors wanted him nearby and he realized he couldn’t be an absentee boss to 15 employees.
The results are mixed regarding number of young Iowans who are staying, Culver said, but as a result of Generation Iowa “there are exciting things happening that have longer-term impact and will hopefully keep more young people here and help those who have left to come back.”
“We should put a bungee cord on the back of every talented Iowan,” Fong said.
Perhaps one small measure of the Generation Iowa Commission’s success is that six years later 12 of the 15 original members still live in Iowa.
Although he can see Iowa from his office window, Emiliano Lerda is one of those who has left. Now the executive director of Justice For Our Neighbors in Omaha, the Argentina native still tells people he considers himself an Iowan.
“Our commission was never about holding people back,” Lerda said. We wanted to highlight the amazing benefits of living in Iowa and for those — like me at this particular time in my life — that leave the state, we wanted to remind them that Iowa is home, and Iowa is always waiting for you with open arms.”
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