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Young economist leaving Alaska to avoid Legislature's promised painful cuts

Brian Vander Naald loves Alaska, but he and his young family are leaving because they see a downturn coming and don't trust the Legislature to handle it.

A friend put me in touch with Vander Naald after recent comments by Sen. Pete Kelly, R-Fairbanks, the Finance Committee co-chair who said the state should cut spending more to address its enormous deficit before looking at new revenues. As I explained in a previous column, economists say that strategy is the most harmful choice for the economy.

"He said something to the effect of, obviously we haven't cut deep enough, because people aren't feeling the pinch," Vander Naald said. "And the problem with that statement is that people don't only make decisions just based on what is happening in the past and the present, they also make decisions based on what they expect to happen in the future. And when legislators make comments like that, it drags down people's expectations."

Vander Naald, 36, knows what he is talking about. He is an economist specializing in natural resources, with a set of skills in high demand nationally and much needed by Alaska. The University of Alaska Southeast recruited him in 2012 with a fresh Ph.D. from the University of Oregon. He and his wife Anne, a massage therapist, bought a house and nine months ago had a son, Isaac.

They don't want to leave. The work is interesting, their walkable neighborhood in Juneau is warm and full of children, and they are vigorous young people who love skiing and hiking in the mountains around the city.

But, growing nervous, Vander Naald put out feelers last fall. He has family in the Midwest. An offer came from Drake University, a highly rated private university in Des Moines, Iowa. As the Legislature discussed deeper and deeper cuts to the university this spring, he decided to take the job.

I've heard a lot of people talking this way, wondering if it is time to sell a house or update a resume because tough times are coming and those who move first have more choices.

Moving is expensive. If you don't have valuable skills or a high income, you might stay in a job until it goes away. If you have deep roots — and roots grow with age — leaving could be a last resort even if you can afford it. But highly trained young people with marketable skills can go where they want, when they want. That's Vander Naald's family.

He cited economic research that shows that communities with better educated workers have higher incomes, lower crime rates and less alcohol and drug abuse. Generations ago, economic development was about attracting heavy industry. But today's success stories are cities with top universities surrounded by bright, energetic young people who have good ideas.

"That gets to the shortsightedness of cutting education," Vander Naald said. "The kind of capital you are talking about building with education is human capital. Which is expanding our brain power. And that is where all the high-value industries are right now, with people who are smart and also accumulating knowledge. When you invest in people who are accumulating knowledge, they tend to create things. They tend to be more creative in a way that will spawn products in this new knowledge economy."

The Legislature's cuts threaten to dismantle our university. Before seeing that happen, Vander Naald decided to invest his brain and his family's growth elsewhere.

The struggle to build a professional class in Alaska has lasted many decades. The leaders who created the state recruited individual lawyers, doctors, economists, architects and engineers. Those professionals contributed careers after being lured here by Gov. Bill Egan, banker and former Anchorage Mayor Elmer Rasmuson and newspaper publisher Bob Atwood, among others.

But we haven't built enough capability to grow our own. Alaska has the second lowest percentage of high school graduates going to college of any state (46 percent of our kids go, compared to 63 percent nationally). Our brightest students tend to leave Alaska for college and frequently do not return.

So we continue to import. For example, rather than training our own kids to become teachers, we hire two-thirds of our new teachers from outside Alaska.

Business leaders understand. The Anchorage Economic Development Corp.'s "Live Work Play" is intended to improve the quality of life to attract and hold talent. Besides education, it also focuses on recreation, housing, crime, and creating the cultural and neighborhood life that millennials want.

Moira Sullivan, 29, graduated from Dimond High School and attended Dartmouth College and Trinity College, in Dublin, before coming home a few months ago to take over Live Work Play. (Ironically, her predecessor had to leave because of a spouse's oil industry job transfer).

Sullivan is insistently upbeat. She sees no evidence that young people are considering leaving because of the economy. But she agreed that higher education is a key to her work.

"The university, of course, is incredibly important," Sullivan said. "It attracts and keeps young people because they have a great place to be educated, but that research also contributes to burgeoning industries. So our project through Live Work Play encompasses the university in a big way, because it is one of our biggest assets."

The legislative majorities aren't thinking this way. Kelly got his degree from Liberty University more than 20 years after graduating from a Fairbanks high school and lists his occupation as heavy equipment operator, real estate agent and sales manager. His budget-writing counterpart in the house, Rep. Mark Neuman, R-Big Lake, doesn't have a college degree and owns a wood-working business.

I respect those occupations and I know college attendance is not required for leadership or intelligence, but I wonder if these legislators understand how their statements and actions are damaging our economy and our ability to keep our kids in Alaska.

The departure of the Vander Naald family will leave us poorer. We need people like them.

Charles Wohlforth's column appears three times weekly.

The views expressed here are the writer's and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at) Send submissions shorter than 200 words to or click here to submit via any web browser.