Brain drain? Many young South Floridians seek brighter economic prospects elsewhere

Three recent studies reveal that South Florida suffers from an unhappy confluence of economic and demographic factors that prompt younger residents to seek a brighter future elsewhere.

12/12/2011 5:00 AM

12/16/2011 12:14 PM

When Christina Caldwell moved back to her native Miami after living out west for six years, she planned to remain. But after two years of dead-end jobs as a bartender and receptionist, she left for California — for good. She now makes more than $100,000 a year at a post-production company in Venice Beach.

“I would never, ever move back to Miami,” she says.

Christina is not alone: South Florida is losing young people in droves, according to recent national and local studies. The area’s high unemployment rate, lack of innovative jobs and huge income gaps have created a perfect storm that many young people are unwilling to wait out.

One study by the Brookings Institute ranks South Florida as fifth among the top five metro areas losing residents in the 25-34 year-old demographic group along with New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago. The study, released in October, looked at six years’ worth of data, from 2005-2010, from the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey to rank 51 U.S. metropolitan areas by annual average net migration.

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The Miami Herald asked members of this group why so many opted to leave, using an online database of sources who are part of the Public Insight Network .

“There weren’t that many opportunities here,” said Victor Thompson, 33.

Thompson, who grew up in Miami-Dade, went to Florida International University and started his tech career in South Florida at a local Yahoo.com office in Coral Gables.

When he outgrew the local tech industry, he took a position with Sony as lead producer for Crackle Movies en Español, a move that required relocation to California. He’s going in January with his wife and newborn daughter, although somewhat reluctantly.

“It’s tough to realize that you have to leave your home to stay in your job,” he said.

At 10 percent, South Florida’s unemployment rate is much higher than the country’s 8.6 percent, making it more difficult for first-time job seekers to penetrate the local job market.

The area also has one of the smallest shares of tech jobs, lagging most other competing metro areas, according to a study commissioned by Miami-Dade’s economic development agency, the Beacon Council. The council’s study, released earlier this month, also shows that South Florida trails behind in innovation and young professionals.

“I can’t think of one friend in South Florida who has a successful career,” said Lauren Hord, 31, who moved back to Seattle in August after trying to settle in her native South Florida numerous times.

This time, she says, she’s not coming back.

“All of my high school friends with successful careers are in New York, Los Angeles, Seattle,” said Hord, who attended Pine Crest, a Broward private school with a stellar reputation.

The Beacon Council study supports Hord’s conclusion.

Despite South Florida’s high concentration of college students, the region has fewer young professionals compared to competing metro areas nationwide. The young professionals who remain have a lower educational attainment than those in most other competing metros. For instance, 27.8 percent of South Florida’s residents have a bachelor’s degree or higher, compared with 37.4 percent in Seattle’s metro area, according to the Beacon Council study.

In other words, not only is South Florida losing its educated young professionals, it may be losing the best and the brightest.

“People that I’ve worked with, that are geniuses, are gone,’’ said Thompson, who is gearing up for his relocation to Los Angeles. “That’s why I call it a brain drain — because smart people are leaving.”

Miami-Dade also finished last in its share of college-educated residents when compared with 15 similar metro areas, according to the Beacon Council-commissioned study.

Seattle, Denver, Houston, Dallas and Austin are the top five metro areas gaining residents in the 25-34 year-old demographic, in contrast to South Florida.

Those top cities have the right combination of “the three T’s,” says Richard Florida, an American urban studies theorist and Professor at the Rotman School of Management in the University of Toronto. He defines those as talent, tolerance and technology — qualities, he says, that are imperative in attracting the kind of people that will help build a better economy.

“Miami does very well on diversity, amenity and lifestyle, but it doesn’t have the tech economy or business base to create the kind of job activity that will draw or retain young people,” said Florida, who resides in Miami Beach half the year.

Not all the young professionals who move out of Miami, however, are finding success.

Lke most of the young migrants the Herald spoke to, Alex Montalvo, 33, had countless other reasons for leaving Miami for Seattle two months ago. Chief among them: sense of community.

“South Florida doesn’t offer much for the middle class. The nightlife, the eating options, the maneuverability, all favor the wealthy,” Montalvo said in response to a query from the Herald. “It’s a fun place, but becoming too expensive and with a lack of a vibrant middle class.”

But he’s having difficulty finding a suitable position.

In Miami, where he worked for seven years, he helped develop community environmental education programs for the City of Miami; at various times, he was interim executive director and program director.

Now he’s applying for less-senior positions at nonprofit organizations in Seattle. But he’s not getting any callbacks.

“I feel like Miami in some ways didn’t prepare me enough for a workplace outside of Miami,” he said. “Maybe I didn’t have the right professional development. I’m asking myself those questions now.”

South Florida had the nation’s second-highest rate of income inequality from 2005-2009, according to another report issued in October by the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey. This income chasm is among the reasons Liana Minassian, 25, is leaving for Los Angeles on Jan. 14.

After graduating from the University of Miami, she had hoped to settle in Coral Gables but is finding it hard to fit in.

“The majority of my friends have left,” said Minassian, who grew up in Pembroke Pines, and now works as a secretary at the UM Humanities Center. “It kind of confirms what I already think: that no one really wants to stay here.”

Despite the statistics, Richard Florida said things are looking up.

South Florida is “in the early stages of transitioning from a tourism to a quality of life city,” he said. It was becoming a place in which people want to live, he added.

The housing market implosion is helping, he says. Because of the depressed housing market, more young people and families — and fewer wealthy snowbirds — are moving into the downtown areas.

“That creates an active vibrant environment that is likely to serve the city and region well in the future,” he said.

Florida also pointed to the budding art communities in Miami’s Wynwood and downtown areas as a step in the right direction, but he thinks allowing proposed casinos in these areas would undo a lot of the progress.

“The casino is a step backward from where a great, vibrant, locally rooted, diverse community should be going,” he said.

Minassian is pleased with the urban growth in the Wynwood and downtown neighborhoods but says they aren’t yet thriving enough to keep her around.

“I just hope that the people who do like it enough to stay will have a hand in helping to make it so people don’t always leave.”

This article includes comments from members of HeraldSource, part of the Public Insight Network. To learn more about the network or to join, visit MiamiHerald.com/insight.

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