Brain Drain or Brain Gain?

Featured Audio

Youngstown was booming when Jim Cossler graduated high school in the early 1970s. Many of his friends found work in the steel mills, just as their fathers and grandfathers had done for more than a century. But, that picture changed drastically when the mills started closing several years later, due in part to foreign competition.

JIM COSSLER: The steel companies were not thinking about new technology --- the foreign firms were. And that, in and of itself, may be the reason for their demise.

Jim Cossler thinks a lot about new technology, these days. As CEO of the Youngstown Business Incubator, funded by state and federal money, he plays head coach to a collection of tech start-up firms in some old downtown buildings, once abandoned, but now buzzing with activity.

JIM COSSLER : We've gone from two-and-a-half floors in this five-story building in 2001, to over 120,000 square feet in four buildings --- all interconnected --- by 2012.

The Business Incubator is home to a $70-million federal research lab dedicated to advanced manufacturing. Another multi-million-dollar operation, hatched here, designs audience response systems used by organizations and TV programs across the country.

The Incubator has helped generate over 400 local jobs at the facility and another two hundred across Northeast Ohio. Cossler says, at first, it was a challenge recruiting this mostly young crew of entrepreneurs.

JIM COSSLER: We knew there were people all over the country who had that ability, who had that talent. But, why would somebody who has no connection to Youngstown, Ohio want to help us? So, we started thinking about the Youngstown Diaspora.

These were the college-educated 20- and 30Somethings who had left town, but might come back if they knew there were job prospects. The question was: how do you find them? Operating on a hunch, Ciossler used a premium version of the popular business networking software, LinkedIn, to systematically hunt for Youngstown State University graduates with ties to major computer hardware and software companies across the globe.

JIM COSSLER: For instance, we enter in the company: Microsoft. And then we put in the school: YSU. And we get 29 immediate hits. You just keep repeating that over and over again.

Oberlin native, Robert Hatta, spent several years as a talent recruiter for the Cleveland-based tech start-up development firm Jumpstart, using strategies similar to Jim Cossler to locate Northeast Ohio natives with specific skills, missing from the local marketplace.

ROBERT HATTA: In fact, when I was at Jumpstart, around the holidays, my office was always filled with folks coming home to visit family who had heard about what Jumpstart was doing, asking , “What’s going on here? Is there something I could do in town that would help me move my young family home?” I got requests like that all the time.

Hatta knew from personal experience the powerful draw of home. A graduate of Stanford University in California's Silicon Valley, he went on to work for Netflix and Apple in London. But then, he started feeling another calling. They wanted to come home to start a family.

ROBERT HATTA: At that point, we were both in our mid-30s and both have happy and healthy parents in the region, and we felt that unique opportunity to raise a family and have our children form relationships with their grandparents. That was priority number one.

Hatta thinks there is too much hand-wringing about talented young people leaving home. He says, when you go away, you're acquiring skills and experiences and relationships that you can ultimately bring back.

ROBERT HATTA: It's a two-way exchange. There isn't this brain drain where we're losing all of our best and brightest to never return. You might be losing a 22-year-old, but there is a great opportunity to get a 32-year-old.

John Slanina is a member of the Youngstown Diaspora that Jim Cossler lured back to town.

JIM COSSLER : I chased that kid forever, until I finally found a position for him

Slanina studied Engineering at Youngstown State before moving to Europe to pursue graduate studies. He's currently Manager of International Research at Revere Data, a San Francisco-based company that opened an office next to the Youngstown Business Incubator. Slanina sits outside a local hip hangout known as the Lemon Grove Café --- one of a number of new restaurants and shops along West Liberty street in the heart of the city. He never imagined he would end up coming back home.

JOHN SLANINA:I didn't think that I would, but then, an opportunity opened up here in Youngstown, I took it, and I'm totally happy to be here.

Slanina admits that six hundred tech jobs may not seem like much in a city that still suffers the economic consequences of losing thousands of steel workers, thirty years ago. Still, he's encouraged by the signs of life that a new generation of workers are bringing back to a town that many had assumed was dying.

Support Provided By