One of the first questions Christopher Law gets when he meets new people is why he moved from Florida to southeast Ohio, when many people express a desire to do the opposite.
“The obvious place to start is the weather,” the 25-year-old 2010 graduate of Marietta College said with a laugh. “Right now (in Florida) it is 110 degrees with 100 percent humidity.”
But there are a number of other reasons Law chose to return to his alma mater as director of web services. And he’s part of what Ohio officials hope is a growing trend of young adults coming back to or remaining in the Buckeye State after two decades of their numbers declining.
According to U.S. Census data, Ohio’s population of people ages 20-34 decreased by more than 16 percent from 1990 to 2010, even as the overall population grew by 6.4 percent.
In Washington County, the drop in young adults was nearly 25 percent over the same period, with Monroe and Morgan counties also seeing losses above the state level. And while Noble County fared better than the state as a whole, it still saw its 20-34 population decrease by about 12 percent.
A lot of the so-called “brain drain” of young adults from Ohio was attributed to diminishing career prospects, something the local area saw as major employers slashed their workforce or closed down completely.
But now, the numbers have started heading in the opposite direction.
According to Census data, from 2010 to 2012, Ohio’s 20-34 population increased by about 50,000. Projections for Washington County, based on monitoring of deaths, births and migration, show an increase of more than 250 in that age group from 2010 to 2012.
Charlotte Keim, president of the Marietta Area Chamber of Commerce, doesn’t have any hard numbers on changes in the local young adult population, but her eyes tell her the trend is happening.
“Anecdotally, I would say that we’re seeing an increase at the chamber in younger businesspeople,” she said.
And at the Marietta Noon Rotary, “we’ve got a lot of people under 40, and we’ve got a few people under 30,” she said.
Keim said she’s read studies that suggest people in their 20s now are different from their recent predecessors.
“Their values seem to be more like those of the Greatest Generation. Home, community and family seem to be important to them,” she said.
Law was born in California and grew up in Gainesville, Fla., home of the University of Florida, where he went to work and to get his master’s degree in web design and online communication after graduating from Marietta College in 2010. But he came back to the Pioneer City because he prefers the “neighborhood vibe” here compared to a larger city.
“There’s 60,000 college students or so (in Gainesville), so every three months you’re getting a new population of 12,000 or so people,” Law said. “It’s really hard to go into a place (in Marietta) of 50 people and not know a third of them.”
There are also economic advantages to living here, he said.
“Cost of living here is, what, a third of what it would be in a larger city in Florida?” said Law, who just bought a house in Marietta for what he estimated is half or less of the price in the Gainesville area.
Plus, Law likes the college, the scenery and his co-workers, as well as being able to enjoy time along the river without being surrounded by thousands of beach-going tourists.
A perceived lack of opportunity was one reason Dexter City native Teresa Berry left the area more than a decade ago after earning a bachelor’s degree in psychology at West Virginia University. She said she was also looking for a more diverse place to live than the Mid-Ohio Valley, recalling strange looks she and her biracial niece would get sometimes when walking around at local events.
“I just felt that the area lacked diversity,” said Berry, now 36. “I just felt that it was, like, ‘country’ to me.”
But after eight years as a regional director for group homes for the developmentally disabled in Manhattan, Berry returned to Ohio.
“I had had enough of the city life. I missed home, basically,” she said.
Berry didn’t come all the way back to the valley, going to work in the Diversity, Study Abroad and TRIO department at Columbus State Community College. But she visits the area regularly and said she sees more diversity and acceptance here today. She would consider a move to Marietta somewhere down the line.
“It’s just such a beautiful town. It’s got that old world, Victorian feel that I love,” Berry said. “I just wish that the jobs were a little bit better.”
There are opportunities in many fields locally, Keim said.
The oil and natural gas industry is growing thanks to new technology that has opened up deep-underground shale deposits to hydraulic fracturing. And Keim points out that while businesses aren’t coming in and hiring in the massive numbers of years past when a new plant opened, there are businesses adding jobs.
In fact, some companies are having trouble filling certain jobs. Keim pointed to Pioneer Pipe’s establishment of a pre-apprenticeship welding program with the Washington County Career Center and other vocational schools to meet the needs in that field. In January, Washington State Community College is starting its own welding program and opening its Center for Public Safety to train first responders like police and firefighters. The career center frequently touts its chemical operator program and the numerous opportunities for good-paying jobs that exist as older workers approach retirement.
“The kids are figuring out that if they want to get a job and stay around here … they need to get that training,” Keim said.
Pamela Lankford, with the Small Business Development Center in Marietta, said between 20 and 25 percent of the clients that agency is working with are under the age of 40.
“The main reasons that they were looking to start, probably predominantly, is that they have family here and/or they are from the area and want to get back here,” she said.
Others are considered “trailing spouses,” coming to the area with a husband or wife moving here for a job, Lankford said.
“Their spouse moved here for work and they either had … a home-based business that they could bring with them or that was their option for finding employment in the area,” she said.