Three cities in Colorado — a state whose fortunes have been tied to the boom and bust of oil, gas and other commodities — are among the top 10 leading destinations for the nation’s best and brightest as old cow and mining towns morph into technology hubs, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. Another Colorado city is plotting a 21st century revival. Boulder, the small college town located just north of Colorado’s capital, is ranked No. 1 nationally in the Bloomberg Brain Concentration Index, which tracks business formation as well as employment and education in the sciences, technology, engineering and mathematics. Fort Collins and Denver follow at No. 4 and No. 10, respectively. Heralding the progress in the Fort Collins metropolitan area, the website of the Northern Colorado Economic Alliance declares the region as “nerdy and proud of it” with major universities producing “a robust workforce of young, highly-educated individuals.” An estimated 35 percent of the population holds a bachelors degree or higher, according to the alliance.
The prosperity isn’t statewide, though. Grand Junction is ranked No. 16 nationally among the cities with waning white-collar jobs and declining salaries for science, technology and engineering jobs, according to the separate Bloomberg Brain Drain Index. The city is located on Colorado’s western slope, a region dependent on oil, gas and agriculture.
“It’s been a much slower economic recovery on the western slope,” said Cilia Kohn, director of marketing at the Grand Junction Economic Partnership. “We do quite a bit in the community to bolster the economy.” The Rural Jump-Start tax credit program, which offers a tax holiday for technology businesses, was the brainchild of Grand Junction area officials and is projected to bring 600 jobs to the city and neighboring communities, Kohn said.
Among the companies drawn by the Jump-Start Program are Colorado Clean, which develops bioplastics, and Adaptive Towers, which makes rapid deployment communications towers, Kohn said. There are also plans to open a pair of business centers catering to the outdoor recreation industry, she said. “Brain drain is what we had when the oil and gas companies shut down and people left,” Kohn said. “Now they are coming back.”
The disparity from one end of the state to the other is not unique to Colorado. Muskegon, Michigan, a once bustling manufacturing town, tops the Brain Drain Index, while the state is also home to one of the country’s most educated work forces just 2.5 hours away in Ann Arbor. The city, which comes in at No. 12 on the Brain Concentration Index, is home to the University of Michigan and has an unemployment rate of just 3.9 percent.
Towns facing an exodus of workers may be able to stem the tide through creative policies, like Grand Junction’s tax credit program. Cindy Larsen, president of the Muskegon Lakeshore Chamber of Commerce, said officials have attempted to slow their town’s loss by providing two years of free college tuition to local high school students with grade point averages of 3.5 and above.
“A couple years ago, this was a concern,” Larsen said. “But today, because of these new programs, we’re starting to see the turnaround, and hopefully the data will soon reflect that.” In August, Michigan Governor Rick Snyder announced that KL Outdoor/GSC-Future Beach, the world’s largest manufacturer of kayaks, will move its corporate headquarters to downtown Muskegon and create 153 jobs over three years.
Filling out the top 10 of the Brain Concentration Index are cities rich in technology and higher education, including San Francisco (2), Washington (5), Raleigh (6) and Seattle (9). Smaller towns head up the Brain Drain Index: Goldsboro, North Carolina (4), and Huntington, West Virginia (8), but also Springfield (6), the capital city of Illinois.
Methodology: Total number of STEM occupation holders approximated by taking the headcount of those civilians age 16+, employed full-time, year round (FTYR), holding jobs in the categories of computer, engineering and science, including the sub-categories of mathematical and architecture occupations; STEM pay referred to the median earnings for the group; Science and Engineering degree holders referred to those age 25+ with bachelor’s degrees for first major in the field; An advanced degree is a post-graduate degree such as a master’s, professional (business school, law school), or doctorate degree; the outflow, relative to inflow, of advanced degree holders tracked those to and from out of state and/or country; total white-collar jobs approximated by taking the headcount of civilian FTYR workers holding jobs in the broad category of management, business, science and arts, which includes sub-categories such as finance, education, legal, healthcare, computer and engineering. Business activities approximated by the net change of number of establishments per 100,000 of population.