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Local residents discuss reversing 'brain drain'

WORTHINGTON -- A diverse group of community leaders met Monday night in an effort to reverse the trend of losing young professionals to other cities.

"I thought there was some excellent conversation that was going on," said Darlene Macklin, executive director of the Worthington Area Chamber of Commerce and a co-host of the event. "A lot of the points that were made will be very useful to the Chamber of Commerce. We also plan to maybe take it a step farther and work with the city of Worthington or the county or (Worthington Regional Development Corp.) on some of the things that were brought forward tonight. Hopefully we can get some things changed."

The discussion, which was at the Biotechnology Advancement Center, split the attendees into small groups to address three questions.

"I think it's exciting to see community members and the diverse group we had tonight talk about the issues that are important to Worthington," said discussion facilitator Toby Spanier, who works with the University of Minnesota Extension. "I think that process of allowing people to have a conversation is much fruitful than having 30 people come and listen to a presentation about this. That's encouraging to me."

The event, called Redesigning MN, was convened by InCommons, which is an initiative of the Bush Foundation.

"The InCommons initiative is really about what we say is changing the culture of problem solving in the region," said Mandy Ellerton, InCommons Project Manager. "What we're trying to do is look for people in groups and communities that are trying to step out of that mold and try a different kind of problem solving. In this case, when think about the problems communities are facing, and Worthington identified this issue of the brain drain, we wanted to partner with them in trying a different kind of problem solving approach to the issue they've identified."

Worthington was chosen as a host for a variety of reasons.

"There is a lot of good work happening, asking good questions, people who are innovating and some of the work in region around redesigning services was particularly interesting," Ellerton said. "We started building a relationship, little by little. Earlier this year we did do a conversation in Worthington about Redesigning MN. From there we realized there was so much work happening that we could start to have conversations about that work and not just the program. We just kind of followed where the energy took us."

The issue addressed on Monday was related to the "brain drain," or the loss of Worthington's higher education-tract students and future workers.

To solve this, a group of community members gathered for more than two hours.

"The kind of problem solving we're all about and we want to support is what we call community powered problem solving," Ellerton said. "So that's why we're taking this approach with these conversations that are about inviting a variety of community members and have their voices heard."

Some of the bigger employers and groups were represented during the discussion.

"I think we as an employer, and not only us, but all employers in town, we need to do a better job of letting young kids know what the opportunities are in our local industry," said Jenny Anderson-Martinez, JBS Human Resources Director. "JBS as an example, I think kids probably look at it as having to work on the line and we have 250 management jobs that are opportunities and possibilities for our youth that maybe they aren't aware. I think that's one take away for me, we need to do a better job of educating our kids."

Education was a common theme throughout the night. That theme took many forms from educating youth on job opportunities to an internship program.

"I am extremely pleased with how tonight went because we brought a group of people together that met had not met before that didn't know what was coming at them and they performed in the best possible way," co-host Cheryl Avenel-Navara said. "We have ideas and things to follow up on. Now all we have to do is put it together, that's the exciting part."

Chris Witzel, interim director of the WREDC, who served as a table host, saw some good ideas for long-term solutions.

"We might need a little something in the short term. It's showing process now," he said. "I liked they were all on the same page. That surprised me. There were 30 different people in the room, all of different ages and ethnicities and they would come up with the same ideas. They were split up into different groups and they would still come up with similar ideas, so that was showing progress right there. Hopefully they can use it to get something done."

At the meeting's conclusion, the question was what the next steps will be.

"Next week, Darlene and I are going to sit down with the material and we're going to figure out where we go," Avenel-Navara said. "I think we both have some ideas that we're going to put together and we're going to figure it out. This is not the end of this. We have to do something."

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Coordinator Aaron Hagen may be reached at 376-7323.