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March 11th, 2010

When the Next Generation says “Good-bye, Iowa”

63bypass_roadendsWritten by Christian Fong

Would you believe that two years after its founding in 2007, 20% of the original members of the Generation Iowa Commission, the state commission studying why the next generation is leaving Iowa, had waved good-bye and left Iowa?

Unfortunately, the answer is yes.

As a founding member and past-Chair of the Generation Iowa Commission, I have spent the last three years speaking about Iowa’s next generation to business, community and political leaders. I am repeatedly asked a simple question, “What makes some places able to attract the Next Generation, and why is Iowa so poor at it?”

The question is born of desperation. Towns are dying. Their young people are leaving, as less than one in five counties show long-term growth in population at all. After nearly three years of research, fact-based analysis and surveying, the answer is clear. The majority of Iowa’s next generation wants to stay, but job opportunities determine whether they can.

Simply put, Iowa has not created enough good jobs to keep our young people in the state.  How bad is Iowa’s labor market? In 2008, Iowa Workforce Development found that just 12% of available jobs required a bachelor’s degree, while 33% of young Iowans are earning such a degree. Sadly, the average county in Iowa in 2008 had fewer than four open jobs that required a graduate degree. To further the problem, these skilled jobs typically pay 15 to 20% less then surrounding states.

Young people know that Iowa’s policy is failing them, and they have turned into a generation of economic migrants.

It’s About Jobs!

How do we win young Iowans? In both politics and community development the answer must be to provide clear solutions to the issues they care about. Here are the top three items that young Iowans, aged 18 to 35, say they want in deciding to stay in Iowa.

1)    Affordability of living in Iowa

2)    Available job in my field

3)    Competitive salary and Possibility of Professional Advancement (tie)

(Data from the Iowa Department of Economic Development)

Iowans deserve to know that our current policy is failing in every one of these areas, driving young people to leave. The resulting break-up of extended families and individual communities is a failure of state-level policy.

Affordability: Iowa, once a low cost-of-living state, has lost our regional advantage. Today, Iowa is just average, ranking #5 in our ten-state Upper Midwest region.

Available Jobs: It is no surprise that jobs have been lost since the last gubernatorial election. What is stunning, and unacceptable, is that those job losses have taken place in the sectors that make up the backbone of our long-term economies.

Fong Job Growth

Since 2006, the total number of non-farm jobs is down by 3%. Construction jobs are down 14%. Manufacturing jobs are down 12%, with durable goods manufacturing especially hard hit, down 18%. Traditional “white collar” roles, like professional services and information technology jobs, are down 4% since 2006.

Of course, the Governor has put a lot of people to work.  State government is 5% larger since 2006.  (Are you at least 5% more satisfied with Iowa’s government?)  Government expands, the private sector shrinks, and Iowa taxpayers carry the burden of growing government.

Career Options: The Iowa Dream is not about any old job, it is about a fulfilling career that allows us to provide for and enjoy our families and communities. Those stable, long-term jobs are more rare than ever. The Kauffman Foundation now lists Iowa as a “Bottom 10” state in its rankings for “New Economy Index,” “Good Jobs” and “Job Mobility” (a measure of how likely it is to find a new job).  The Iowa economy is going backwards.

By the way, many people assume young Iowans are bored with the pace and amenities of our state.  How can we compete without mountains, nightclubs or big city attractions? Not true. “A vibrant night-life” and “Cultural events” ranked as the two least important items to young Iowans, well behind the economic metrics. Young Iowans usually praise quality of life here.

To the average young Iowan, it’s about jobs. But many next generation Iowans would rather vote with their feet then vote at the ballot box. If we turn that around, those who have stayed can create a great state where the Iowa Dream is alive and well.

Winning the Next Generation Vote

Political observers know that the next generation vote is key to Iowa’s conservatives turning the tide and winning in 2010. The numbers don’t lie:

Fong 2006 Turnout–       Young Republicans aren’t voting.  Just 37% of GOP-registered, under-35-years-old Iowans voted in 2006.  At the same time, the GOP has been quite successful in turnout out older voters, especially over 50 years old.  Generation X and Millennials are the missing voters for the GOP. (See graph.)

–       In the 2008 election cycle, Democrats registered about 50,000 more Iowans under 35 years of age then the GOP did. To put that in perspective, that is 5% of the total voter turn-out in the 2006 election!

–       49% of registered Iowa voters between the age of 18 and 35 choose to not affiliate with a party. But young independents voted 2-to-1 for Democrats in 2008.

Conservatives have a window of opportunity in 2010 to turn this around. I have talked with hundreds of young people and heard a common theme.  Generation X (age 30 to 45) and Millennials (age 30 and younger) are turned off by the gridlock, weary of “I’ll fight for you” rhetoric and suspicious of being asked to believe in empty promises. Yet they are hoping for real change.  These Iowans can help win our future back.

In 2010, let’s engage the next generation in the civic conversation. Imagine if young people understood that we want to hear their story. Imagine if they got involved.  Imagine if they reversed the failed policies on the issues that matter most to them.

How do we get that done?

First, give them a way to talk to us without the filters of mainstream media and political gatekeepers, nor the obscurity of a blog or website without adequate reach or promotion. We need a true dialogue with the next generation, not a political negotiation. We should understand their passions, their frustrations with partisan politics, and what they are willing to do to rescue their future in Iowa.

Second, we need to provide Generation X and Millennials a platform to take leadership in conservative politics. It should incorporate the sort of online tools that Obama deployed in 2008, but in a way that creates a virtual organization, a virtual community.

Finally, timing is everything. We should ask young conservatives to get involved in the primary election. Waiting until the fall campaign season is too late.  The media focus on the primary election campaigns gives the perfect opportunity to get young voters involved. When they are part of the primary process, we secure candidates that appeal to new and young voters, and create reasons for those young Iowans to be the activists and promoters for the rest of the year.

In 2010, let’s tell the next generation that it is their turn, and this is their time, to break from the past and make a new and bright future for Iowa.  (Do you want to be a part of reaching the next generation of Iowa’s conservatives?  Contact me at [email protected])

About the Author

Christian Fong
A son of a Chinese immigrant and a Nebraska farm girl, Christian Fong is a product of the Iowa Dream. One of eight children, Christian graduated high school from Underwood in Southwest Iowa. Christian has spent his career in the financial services sector, including as an executive with AEGON, an insurance company located in Cedar Rapids. Today, he is the Managing Partner of Fong Strategic Consulting, where he assists social sector and financial sector clients with strategic and organizational change. Christian has a B.S. in Statistics from Creighton University, graduating first in his class. He earned an M.B.A. from the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth, where he graduated with High Honors and as a Tuck Scholar. Christian is a CFA and CCIM charter holder

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