Reversing brain drain: How fellowships are changing talent trends in Allen County

Growing up in Shipshewana, Nic Hostetler's main exposure to Fort Wayne was buying school clothes at Glenbrook Square.

Today, the 20-something could be a community spokesperson.

"What I really love about Fort Wayne is that it's growing," he says. "Whenever someone says Fort Wayne is boring, I tell them I could think of 15 things to do, whether it's the winter or the summer."

That sentiment must be music to local leaders' ears.

Recent data shows Hostetler could represent a larger shift in perspective among regional talent, reversing the brain drain that's long been an issue in the Midwest. A new, multifaceted approach may be starting to turn the tide.

Nic Hostetler (left) and Chris Owens have worked together at Franklin Electric since Hostetler’s 2015 internship.

Since 1990, Allen County has lost about 21,000 more residents than moved in from other communities—a nasty case of negative domestic migration. The problem has gotten the attention of leaders in the both the public and private sectors.

After all, if local companies cannot fill jobs in Allen County, they could take their opportunities elsewhere.

"Workforce development is the #1 issue," said outgoing state Senator David Long at an event in February. "It's not just a national issue; it's a global issue. I'm very optimistic, but there's a lot of work to be done."

For Long and others, much of that work has meant improving Indiana's quality of place, making it more attractive for both natives and potential transplants.

Local efforts began in earnest with Parkview Field, which opened in 2009. At the state level, lawmakers launched the Regional Cities Initiative in 2015 to help fund quality-of-place improvements. That program spurred public-private partnerships that helped make other projects like the Clyde Theatre, riverfront development, the Posterity Heights Scholar House, and The Landing, a reality.

But even with improvements underway, workers don't recruit themselves. In 2014, Greater Fort Wayne (GFW) Inc. began revamping an existing program that aims at bolstering the local workforce.

"We looked at places like Google and Amazon and Microsoft," says Justin Clupper, GFW Inc.'s director of signature programs. "What are the really big companies doing with their internships that's working?"

Hostetler works at Franklin Electric.

Combining that research with input from college students, the local business community, and the higher education sector, the GFW Fellows program launched in 2015.

The program matches college students with Allen County employers for 12-week project-based summer internships. Housing is provided, as are workshops that teach the "soft skills" that help young professionals make the jump into the workforce.

The program also showcases the Allen County community via group events like nature hikes, tours of local attractions like DeBrand Fine Chocolates, and other excursions.

Early results show that these efforts are working. While only about 25 percent of Fellows participants hail from Allen County, roughly 50 percent of program alumni are now living and working here.

Hostetler is one of them. As part of the inaugural Fellows class in 2015, he spent that summer interning in the IT department at Franklin Electric. He impressed his supervisors so much that by the time he completed his degree at Trine University, he had already accepted a full-time job offer with the company.

"Franklin's an awesome company,” Hostetler says. “The sky's the limit; you have opportunities wherever you go in the company.”

Franklin Electric has hosted GFW Fellows since the program’s inception in 2015.

Despite having other job options in Fort Wayne and elsewhere, his experience at Franklin Electric and in the local community kept him here.

"The Fellows program opened my eyes to all the things that are happening," he says. "It was cool to explore Fort Wayne, and I ended up really liking it."

Hostetler has already been promoted within Franklin Electric and recently bought a house in a 46807 neighborhood.

It's been a win for the company, too. Chris Owens, who was instrumental in hiring Hostetler full-time, says the Fellows program is a helpful tool in building Franklin Electric's workforce.

"I like that it's challenging to get accepted into the program," Owens says. "When (Fellows) get to their host companies, it's an incredible level of work ethic. They just apply themselves in a whole other way because they've worked so hard just to get into the program."

The Fellows program is emblematic of Allen County's recent progress in the battle for talent.

Last year, more people moved into Allen County than moved out. It was the first time that's been the case since the U.S. Census Bureau began tracking the statistic 27 years ago.

While there's work to be done to sustain that momentum, just getting to this point has taken a community-wide effort.

"Back when we started, everyone was asking: What are we going to do to plug the brain drain?" Clupper says. "Now, everybody's focused on talent attraction and retention, and we're all doing something a little different; solving different aspects of the problem. That's so important because there's no silver bullet. We're working in concert, and when our community does that, we can do big things."