Less than four months after 23-year-old Anna Smith graduated from the University of South Carolina, the Greenwood native found herself packing up and moving to New York to make her mark in the big city.
Professionally, I felt that South Carolina was holding me back, Smith said recently from her cellphone while riding the subway to a friends house on Long Island, where she is staying. I had been there my whole life, and I felt I wasnt going to get to where I wanted to go.
Smiths story is not unusual.
A recent study by the Brookings Institution shows that 29.8 percent of Columbias workforce has a college degree this in a town that has five accredited colleges and universities, including the states flagship University of South Carolina. Columbia ranks 43rd among the top 100 metropolitan areas in the country, according to the study.
As cities and states try to claw back from the recent downturn in the economy and pump up the creation of entrepreneurial and high-tech jobs, retaining college graduates is seen as a measuring stick for success.
The Brookings study noted that areas with more college graduates boast longer life expectancies, fewer single parent homes and higher incomes. Those higher incomes translate into a higher tax base, better public services and more private amenities. Those in turn, attract more college graduates.
We graduate a ton of really bright kids, said Grant Jackson, senior vice president of community development at the Greater Columbia Chamber of Commerce. It seems they all want to go somewhere else. But we are beginning to turn that around.
By comparison to Columbia, two very similar cities, Madison, Wis., and Austin, Texas both are medium-sized cities, state capitals and home to flagship universities rank 5th and 8th respectively. In Madison, 43.3 percent of the workforce has a college degree, the study shows. In Austin it is 39.4 percent.
Percentages are higher in those cities because they have more employment opportunities, more diverse populations and more cultural and entertainment options, Jackson and other experts said. All those factors have a bearing on whether a new college grad decides to stay or go.
Columbia would have to become way more metropolitan for me to stay, Smith said. Its a college town and thats kind of where it stops. Theres not a whole lot of breathing room.
Despite the national comparisons with hipster magnets like Madison and Austin, Columbia is doing relatively well compared with other metropolitan areas in the state.
The study shows that Charleston thought to be desirable to young professionals with its beaches, culture, architecture and history ranks 30th in the nation with a college-educated workforce of 31.9 percent. Greenville, perhaps surprisingly, is in a tie for 68th in the country, with 26.9 percent of its workforce holding college degrees.
And the most recent jobs report from the S.C Department of Employment and Workforce shows that Columbia over the past year is leading the state in job creation, many in professional services. Of the 11,300 jobs created in the past year, 9,500 are in the Midlands, while Spartanburg created 6,400 jobs and Charleston grew by 4,500. By contrast, Greenville and Myrtle Beach shed more than 3,000 jobs each.
Were doing OK, but OK isnt good enough, Jackson said. I would like to see us much higher, and we have the potential.
Although statistics for the number of college grads in rural areas throughout the state were not available through several state agencies contacted, the brain drain in rural areas is considered even more dramatic.
Counties such as Marion and Allendale consistently rank in the top spots for unemployment in the state often close to 20 percent. By contrast, the metropolitan areas of Greenville, Charleston and Columbia have an unemployment rate of less than 9 percent.
Its really tough, especially in places where there isnt a hope of getting a job that college graduates would expect, Jackson said. The rural kids from South Carolina are coming to Columbia and Greenville and Charleston.
Candy Ayala, 23 of Cheraw, graduated from USC in May. After exploring a move to Greenville, she is now contemplating taking her chances in New York City like her friend Smith.
Ayala thinks she knows what it will take for South Carolina to keep more grads like her around.
We need better places to hang out, she said. We need better job opportunities and a more diverse population. Im Hispanic, and I find a lot of people here are not open to different languages or cultures or world politics. Most of my friends came here from other states to go to school, then go back home to places like Atlanta.
Those complaints are not unusual.
Katherine Swartz, the chambers vice president of leadership development and community involvement has heard them before in numerous surveys conducted as part of the chambers Talent Magnet program.
A desire for more job opportunities, more diversity and more entertainment options pops up over and over.
We know we dont have the opportunities to keep everyone here, she said. But what we can do is make sure that the student has the best opportunity to land an internship so that when they are ready to put down roots, they put them down here.
Swartz noted that jobs are available in good numbers, such as in the information technology sector. But there arent enough students in that discipline to fill them.
Students are not getting degrees that match the opportunities that are available here, she said. We have companies that are expanding (such as in the insurance industry) but students might not have the technical skills to match.
Swartz said BlueCross BlueShield of South Carolina the worlds largest insurance processing firm had 500 jobs available and had to go outside of the state to fill them.
Matching students to those jobs is a challenge, but Columbia and South Carolina are beginning to build the pipeline through programs like IT-oLogy, which encourages young people to get involved with information technology, she said.
The talent war is the No. 1 issue that a lot of communities are wrestling with right now. A community that is not trying to attract young people is behind the curve.
Despite the challenges, Columbia is making strides in the right direction.
The Brookings survey shows that since 1970, the percentage of college graduates in the workforce has more than doubled to nearly 30 percent from 13.1 percent.
And even many of the present generation of young people called the Millennials who have left are now noticing a change in the city.
Erin Curtis, 26, joined the Peace Corps and worked in Kazakhstan after graduating from USC in 2006. She then did documentary film work in Columbia before deciding to move on to Washington, D.C., a year ago.
She works for a private contractor that produces Internet content for the State Department that is broadcast in other counties. She said she needed to move to be able to work in a job with an international media focus.
But Ive kept an eye on Columbia, she said. To be honest with you, I think its getting better. I tend to brag on Columbia.
She noted the re-emergence of Main Street and enterprises such as the All Local Farmers Market (which she used to manage), nationally recognized food options such as Bone-In Artisan BBQ truck, the newly relocated Nickelodeon art house theater, the Shop Tart blogger and other cultural efforts.
There are people working there who are brilliant a fringe group that is making things happen, she said. I hope they stay, and then the others will follow.