Reporting the brain drain changed how I see my hometown

Photo: Kara Mason

I was walking up Union Ave. back to my office from a lunch meeting I had just finished on B Street. As I crossed C Street another young woman was doing the same. She looked to be my age, around 23, and trendy in professional attire.

A pang of excitement hit me. And it always does every time I see somebody who appears to be 23–30 years old, graduated and living in Pueblo. I am always on the look out for young professional friends. After living a short time in Washington, D.C. and Denver I’ve grown to appreciate a well-deserved Sunday brunch or a happy hour after a long work day. In those places I liked going to trivia night and talking about career goals. It all felt very much like what post-grad life should feel like: A little messy, but like I had things together to some degree. I certainly did not feel like an adult after a few Wednesday night beers with friends. But I knew the next day rent was due, and I’d have to be in early for a meeting and I’d have friends who felt like they too were in some weird in-between stage in life just hanging on until the next big thing happened, like marriage, or a promotion or buying a house.

I can do all of those things in Pueblo, yes. But it’s certainly harder for me knowing what I know.

Last year I started hearing the murmuring of a ‘brain drain’ at events. CSU-Pueblo business professor Michael Wakefield said it was part of a cycle that has left Pueblo’s economy rather sluggish. As I poked around a little more I found that millennials leave Pueblo at an alarming rate. Not like some of my high school friends moved away. Like, everybody I knew my age would eventually be gone by the time they turned 27.

Graphic via Pueblo PULP, statistics from the Colorado State Demographer’s Office

The city and county have done little to alleviate low-paying jobs, the biggest factor Wakefield says is contributing to the brain drain. The last major jobs announcement has been put on ice and the one before that, while having a reported median income of around $60,000, most of the jobs will be closer to $40,000 — on par with the average annual income in Pueblo — I was told when I asked United Launch Alliance officials what the job wages really looked like.

Now when I see a young professional in passing at the county court house or leaving a restaurant, I wonder if we might have a friendship like the ones I have in big cities. But even more I wonder how long they’ll be in Pueblo before they decide there isn’t much more for them here.

I keep ending up in Pueblo because being a journalist here is fun. There are stories in Pueblo I would never get to report anywhere else. When I weigh the quality of life I have in big cities and the ability to report hard-hitting stories, Pueblo always wins, even with a limited brunch selection and a seemingly vacant demographic of millennials who hit happy hour.

I wish I didn’t have to choose though. And before I saw the brain drain stats, I probably thought I didn’t have to. But now I see people with a ticker like in that lame Justin Timberlake flick ‘In Time’. But instead of only living until 25, people only stay in Pueblo until they’re 25.

The stories are worth it, but just barely.

After graduating college there just isn’t a whole lot here and I know people my age are not just moving for the lifestyle, but the jobs. It didn’t quite click when I was in college, surrounded by lots of people my age. But now, with a degree and a career, Pueblo looks a lot different. It looks a lot lonlier.

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