State News

Wisconsin graduates look to larger cities across generations

While Wisconsin and its cities have modernized, generations of college students continue to leave the state for better job and lifestyle preferences.

While Wisconsin and its cities have modernized, generations of college students continue to leave the state for better job and lifestyle preferences.

Image By: Max Homstad

Sin City. While most attribute the nickname to Las Vegas, Katy Culver’s parents used the moniker to describe a place closer to home — Madison, Wis. 

Raised in a conservative household in the Milwaukee suburbs, Culver heard her family bemoan the counterculture environment within Wisconsin’s capital. After she transferred to UW-Madison from UW-Eau Claire in 1986, Culver entered her parent’s worst nightmare: A granola-eating bastion filled with sandal-wearing hippies influenced by the sex, drugs, rock ‘n’ roll and activist atmosphere of the 1960s and 1970s. 

“Everybody drank and smoked pot. It was wild,” Culver said. “The campus felt more modern and Madison was kind of crazy…[But] it just doesn’t have that in the same way anymore.”

Now a journalism professor at UW-Madison, Culver’s perception of Madison — and cities at large — has changed. She initially looked to attend graduate schools in other states to launch her career in the early 1990s, but an unexpected pregnancy and lack of cash-flow preempted a move and prompted a paradigm shift. 

The place Culver and her husband pledged they would never live became their permanent home. 

“It’s a place that’s big enough that you can have some pretty decent diversity. It’s really safe, even though fairly large. You get this size, but you get security. It had a really great school system,” Culver said. “It was a whole new way of looking at Madison.”

The questions Culver encountered on her journey into adulthood are similar to those young professionals feel today: Where will I live? 

Major metropolitan cities, such as Chicago and New York City, attract thousands of ambitious young professionals for both economic and lifestyle preferences. The allure of a bustling lifestyle at the epicenter of culture appeals to many, while others flood big cities for high-paying jobs. 

Wisconsin cities, however, remain in the shadows. 

Traditionally an agricultural and manufacturing state, smaller and medium-sized cities such as Madison and Milwaukee have upgraded their infrastructure and diversified their economic portfolio in recent years to support higher-skilled and college-educated jobs. 

While some stay after graduation, Wisconsin has spent decades attempting to rectify a seemingly unstoppable trend: losing disproportionate amounts of college graduates and simultaneously being unable to attract young professionals in the process. 

In the early 1980s, the incentives to stay in Madison, according to Debbie Teske, lacked a sufficient amount of activities and attractions off campus.

During Teske’s time in the city, State Street served as the hub for both UW-Madison students and city residents, capitol square shops remained boarded up and its hinterlands underdeveloped.

“You’re tuned into your life, your classes, your friends,” Teske said. “You may not appreciate the environment you are in while you are in it.”

Working in Madison appealed to college graduates, however, limited opportunities drove many away. Teske sought to stay in Madison after her graduation in 1983. 

A communication arts and political science major, she tried to break into the broadcast journalism industry at a local Madison television station. Unfortunately, the lack of upward mobility pushed her to look elsewhere. 

“Once I found out that I had to start in a small market, I decided that maybe this wasn’t for me and I needed to pursue something else,” Teske said. “I wasn’t willing to make that commitment.”

An internship in Chicago finally pulled her away from Madison. After a successful career in advertising, Teske settled with her family in the suburbs of Chicago where she remains today.

As decades passed, the city modernized. High-rise apartment buildings spurted from the ground. Chain stores and elaborate restaurants cemented themselves along State Street, University Avenue and around the Capitol. 

Corporations and tech firms set up shop in Madison. The culture of the 1960s and 1970s receded into select neighborhoods, and the development of Middleton and Sun Prairie from virtual farmland to vibrant suburbs attracted a growing workforce. 

In spite of these developments, Culver, who now helps her students secure internships and jobs, noticed that a solid core of her students still wished to move to big cities. Teske, who was a teacher as well, said her students also turned their eyes to major metropolitan centers. 

“Some are very aware if they go to a big city, there’s more opportunity,” Teske said. 

Abby King belongs to this trend. 

The senior political science and history major sat and observed as all her friends announced their post-graduation plans at a Friendsgiving party. Half of them listed destinations such as Chicago, Boston and New York City, while the other half said they were unsure. The mounting pressure to find employment in major cities pervades upcoming graduates, according to King.

“There’s a lot of anxiety for the majority of seniors on campus right now,” King said. “It’s that bittersweetness, knowing that the people you just became best friends with over four years may all be in different places and you don’t have a time that you’re for sure going to see them again too.” 

King’s experience with cities revolves around Chicago and Washington D.C., where she grew up and previously interned. The metropolitan centers appeal to King due to their size, activities, frenetic lifestyle — and most importantly job opportunities. 

King will consider an abundance of career paths following her graduation, ranging from political advocacy to law school. Either way, she believes that moving to a large city will increase her prospects for success.

“I think that there’s a sense of legitimacy, that if you have a job in a big city, it’s a higher caliber job because more people want to work there,” King said. “It’s where you’re most wanted in the sense you can fight for the best salary.”

Home may not be the final destination for King and her friends — at least not for a couple of years. She said many of her peers will seek new opportunities in different environments before returning to their comfort zones. 

“There’s such a sense of loyalty to the city you’re from,” King said. “You want to experience something new for two or three years, but you know where you’re going to come back to.”  

Madison provided King an education and unforgettable memories. She views it as the perfect college town, but nothing more. Nonetheless, even with its increased development and amenities from when Culver and Teske attended college, Madison — and Wisconsin — do not suit King’s interests, lifestyle nor possess a robust-enough job environment to compel her to stay. 

And as legions of future graduates like King prepare for their departure, Madison and the state of Wisconsin find themselves looking for effective measures to retain and recruit troves of young professionals. 

Former Madison Mayor Dave Cieslewicz believes Wisconsin cities still do not possess the resources to compete with major metropolitan cities. 

Cieslewicz served from 2003-2011 and graduated from UW-Madison in 1981. He said everyone wanted to live in the state capitol following his college graduation. 

“There’s such a gap between [the] economies of major metropolitan areas and the economies of rural or smaller areas,” Cieslewicz said. “I think it’s at the heart of what’s going on in politics today.”

To compensate for its weaknesses, Cieslewicz advised Wisconsin cities maximize their strengths.

Similar to what Culver saw, pitching affordable housing, access to transportation, a solid school system and overall high quality of life in Wisconsin’s cities should be promoted by local and state governments to compete with coastal cities like New York City and Los Angeles. 

“The Midwest generally to a lot of people on the coast is flower country,” Cieslewicz said. “And that perception seems to be strengthening rather than weakening.” 

Beginning in 1980, Wisconsin entered the Top 10 ‘Brain Drain’ states in the U.S. Thousands of people migrate from the state annually, a sizable portion of whom are highly educated. This process leaves Wisconsin without a chunk of homegrown workers that can support a modernized economy. 

A 2016 study determined that Wisconsin possessed one of the least educated workforces in the United States. Approximately 66 percent of Wisconsin jobs will only require a high school diploma in the near future, a disincentive to the state’s educated workforce.

Aside from geographic constraints, Cieslewicz attributed poor policymaking at the state level to the advancement of the brain drain. He cited mishaps perpetrated by the Scott Walker administration, such as the state government’s disinvestment in education and environmental regulations, along with outdated legislation such as the state constitutional amendment barring gay marriage.

Cieslewicz also called out missed opportunities such as when Wisconsin refused to accept money for a high-speed railway project in the 2000s intended to connect Madison to Chicago.

“We don’t have a major metro area like Chicago or Minneapolis,” Cieslewicz said. “I think young people who are socially liberal don’t think the state understands the way people live today.” 

During his tenure as mayor, Cieslewicz enacted several college graduate retention programs centered around entertainment, music and tapping into the city’s cultural diversity. He called UW-Madison and its graduates the greatest asset Madison offers. 

“We were always looking for ways to attract and retain young folks,” Cieslewicz said. “They can be here for four years and then go off someplace else and it’s great while you got them here. But what you want to do is keep them as long as you possibly can.”

Young professionals heavily consider their relationship to the city and cultural amenities when choosing where to live, according to Wyatt Tinder. In other words, they want a sense of belonging.

Tinder works as the communications and design director at Newaukee, a social architecture agency which uses promotional events to attract recent college graduates to Milwaukee and to build a communal atmosphere.

Newaukee holds over 100 events a year, according to Tinder. These include large-scale gatherings, like the Milwaukee Night Market that expects 20,000 attendees on a nightly basis. It also holds niche gatherings, such as leading a tour of interns across the city and assisting them in finding jobs. 

“If someone is newer to the city, like a college student, it’s really about trying to make them feel welcome,” Tinder said. “It’s really about introducing people who are new to the city to one another and the resources that we have here.” 

With increased investment in STEM and small business, Wisconsin figures to become a technology hub in the future. But it needs the proper workforce for this change to occur. As companies in both Milwaukee and Madison continue to grow, maintaining a happy and sustainable workforce within its cities will be essential.

“The needs of the workforce has changed so much,” Tinder said. “There is a high demand for skilled tech talent, and I think everyone is trying to figure out the best way to attract and retain those workers.” 

Regardless, Tinder’s research uncovered a trend that transcends time among workers. Certain industries and high-paying jobs may be concentrated in large cities on the coasts, but everyone wants to feel apart of a broader community. 

“From the data we looked at, we realized that people across all ages want the same thing,” Tinder said. “They want to feel like they belong.” 

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