Fighting ‘brain drain’ aim of high school program in southern Illinois

If you’ve been planning to move out of Illinois, you’re not alone. Thousands of people are leaving the state every year. Politicians and community groups are trying to draw more people in and keep educated, young adults in the state.

A new report from the Illinois Policy Institute shows millennials are leading that charge, moving out of the state faster than any other age group.

The high school program Jackson CEO — short for Creating Entrepreneurial Opportunities — is fighting that trend in southern Illinois by working to inspire high school students to become entrepreneurs in their home state.

Like others his age, 19-year-old Dylan Litherland left Illinois after high school. But, he participated in Jackson CEO, and he said it has him interested in coming back.

"Going to Florida and all over the country, it’s interesting to see what opportunities there are. And Illinois does have a lot compared to others," Litherland said.

Jackson CEO facilitator Ken Stoner helps introduce high school students to business and entrepreneurship in hopes of helping them stay in the state. The program aims to interest the teens in starting businesses or taking part unique businesses already in southern Illinois.

"Stop the brain drain in southern Illinois to keep our best and brightest here," Stoner said. Brain drain is a term for when highly trained or intelligent people leave a place. Jackson CEP takes students on tours of businesses around Carbondale and other places in southern Illinois. The goal is that, when students graduate, they choose to stay in the state.

It’s been a success so far, Stoner said, not just for students, but for businesses, too.

Jackson CEO board member Jeff Doherty said the program helps businesses in a number of ways: "From helping fund the project, to being mentors, to hosting the class in their businesses." Doherty said the program is funded entirely by donations from people in the community and area businesses. He said it’s easy for them to see the value in educating bright, young minds, because it keeps them around and engaged in the community.

"This is an investment in our future business leaders in our communities." Doherty said.

"I’m so glad I did it, because the skills you learn from this program are nothing you can learn in a classroom," Litherland said. He said that experience will likely bring him back to his Illinois roots after college, where he hopes to start his own business.

Jackson CEO is open to juniors and seniors in Jackson County, Illinois. CEO programs are also available in multiple counties around southern Illinois. If your student is interested in the CEO programs, click here. The program originated in Effingham, Illinois. It’s available in counties including Jefferson, Perry, Williamson, and Saline.  To find out mind more information about the program, click here. Contact your local high school to see if the program is available.

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