State missing opportunities by not keeping young adults here

Posted: Sunday, August 08, 2004

I have no friends left.

OK, that's not entirely true. Although they might not admit it, I know one or two people around town who I consider to be more than grocery-store-hello acquaintances. But not many.

And each year it seems like I find it harder and harder to track down my old pals.

This fact has hit home harder than ever this summer, as I've lost one of my best fishing buddies and am about to see one of my golfing partners head off to law school.

This is not a new thing. Over the past five years or so, I've seen most of the people I grew up with move Outside. In fact, I can count the number of close friends from high school still left here in town on one hand and still have enough fingers left to wave goodbye.

The stated reasons for their departures are all different, but the basic story is the same: Unless you want to turn a wrench or work for minimum wage, there aren't really many things to do around here.

Now, don't get me wrong. There's nothing wrong with manual labor or low wages. In fact, as someone who's wrestled with the printer here in the newsroom for three years while still using my change jar to pay for lunch, I pretty much fit into both categories.

But for most of the people I hung out with growing up, all the opportunities are out of the state. And the way I see it, this is not a good thing. Not just because I have fewer and fewer people to bum cash from, but because a lot of these people are just the kind of people we should probably be trying to keep in town.

That's because they're going into careers like medicine, law, engineering, computer science and research biology. (At this point, I'm sure you're wondering how a loser like me could have had such smart friends. Two words: comic relief.)

They didn't all leave because they hate Alaska. In fact, a lot of them still try to get back here for a week or two each summer. And while they're here, almost all of them say they'd love to come back. But why?

Alaska relies on oil to pay for 80 percent of the state's budget. Oil and gas development is by far and away the largest sector of our economy. In fact, pretty much everyone I knew growing up who still lives around here works in the oil patch.

Oil jobs are good paying jobs, and they provide wonderful opportunities for a lot of local people to make a decent living. But think about this one for a second: Of all the kids you know who went off to college, how many ever came back to work on the North Slope? How many came back at all?

There's a bunch of elections coming up soon. And that means that in addition to the usual half-truths and hot air, you're going to hear a lot about how so-and-so plans to make Alaska better for "our children."

You know, it's funny. For all the talking the politicians do about how the future of this state rests on making Alaska a better place for the next generation, they sure seem to spend a lot of time working on making sure we maintain the status quo.

Resource development, increased tourism and protecting the permanent fund are all good things. But oil, tourists and free money are certainly nothing new. And as great as it is to get a check from the government each year, I don't see a lot of young people deciding to make their homes here because they're getting an extra thousand bucks.

The "brain drain" people often speak of is a very real thing. Alaska is no longer a young state, full of 20-something roughnecks intent on carving out a place in the Last Frontier. Statistics show the state is aging, and the young people needed to fill the shoes of the "old-timers" aren't sticking around.

Whether it's because there aren't opportunities here, or because they left the state to get an education elsewhere and never came back, the fact is that people my age don't seem to be staying at home. Some are, and especially in places like Anchorage and Fairbanks there are plenty of jobs open for those people who look hard enough.

But Alaska doesn't have a lot of emerging industries. And our state university system, while improving, still lags far behind even the poorest and least populated states Outside. For example, North Dakota (where I attended college) has a population similar to Alaska's and an economy which is far weaker. Yet the North Dakota university system includes two major state universities and at least six smaller, four-year institutions.

The solution to the problem of the "brain drain" should be the most urgently addressed situation facing Alaska. Government, industry and community leaders need to focus more on how to keep Alaska's kids here and less on how to hold on to an outdated vision of Alaska.

If we don't start keeping our kids here, the future of Alaska will be far more grim than if Prudhoe Bay were to run dry tomorrow. The fact that our oil reserves are indeed running out only heightens the need to develop new industries and better educational opportunities.

If not, we run the risk of becoming a ghost state, full of cranky old Sourdoughs who do nothing but whine about all the problems being caused because the younger generation has abandoned them.

I, for one, would like to be one of these curmudgeons one day. But when that day comes, I'd like to have a couple buddies left to whine to. And a few kids around to blame things on.

Matt Tunseth is a reporter for the Peninsula Clarion.

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