Why we surveyed expats. Building a community that’s attractive to young people is a big issue for — surprise — young voters. Talking to expats helps us understand why people leave in the first place.
Lafayette is everywhere. Hub Citizens are scattered around the world, doing some pretty interesting jobs. They also really, really love Parish Ink and ride or die with homegrown seasoning wherever they are. That much is obvious from the dozens of expats who responded to our outreach.
We put together a map of the roughly 130 people who responded, along with their stories. Expats checked in from Tokyo, Tbilisi, Paris and both U.S. coasts.
Wherever they are, most stay connected. That’s especially true for expats who graduated from UL. Wearing red on Friday is a tradition that crosses time zones.
Why do people leave? Jobs. One way or another, people who leave Lafayette typically do so in search of better economic opportunities. Sometimes that starts with a trip out of state for college. Sometimes it’s a dream job. Sometimes it’s a hard ceiling on the career ladder.
This isn’t necessarily surprising. One Acadiana’s annual quality of life survey found 55% of recent college grads say their job prospects in Lafayette aren’t great. Lafayette isn’t big. So there’s a natural limit to the kinds of opportunities available, even in industries this region is known for.
“Economic opportunity has the potential to be a serious impediment, especially if the local economy isn’t very diversified,” says Kenan Fikri, research director at Economic Innovation Group. “Does it offer the kind of attractive, good-paying jobs that will draw people who have options?”
In the background. Lafayette has diversified, but the 2014 oil bust has had a lingering impact. Consider George Lae, 36, who sold his house in the Saint Streets last year and moved to Dallas for a management position at a small energy firm. A New Orleans native, he relocated to Lafayette after Hurricane Katrina, working as a landman after graduating from UL. Projects dried up after the bust.
“I always had the sense that I was fighting for that job. I was trying to preserve my position,” he says. “I didn’t have a lot of confidence in another project rolling over.”
Housing was a factor in his decision too. Insurance prices drove Lae’s monthly mortgage from $900 to more than $1,200. Housing is more expensive in Dallas, he says, but his employer paid some relocation costs and is set to roll out a 3-5% cost-of-living raise, the second Lae has received in one year on the job.
Some jobs just don’t exist here. Seventeen years ago, Nevin Absher, 46, left his IT job at Baker Hughes for an opening in Raleigh, North Carolina, with Cisco, one of the nation’s largest IT firms. It was a dream job at a dream company. And it opened career and life opportunities that weren’t available to him and other Lafayette tech workers more than a decade ago.
“It was exactly what I wanted to do,” Absher says. “A company that doesn’t have the cyclical problem the oil industry had. It was an IT company, not an IT job with an oil company.”
Raleigh is a boomtown. That’s true more broadly of the area often called the “Research Triangle” — Raleigh, Durham and Chapel Hill. That creates stability for Absher. Even if he lost his job with Cisco, he wouldn’t have to scrounge to find something comparable in tech. It doesn’t hurt that he’s two hours from the beach and three hours from the mountains.
Plenty of expats want to come back. The closer they are to home, the more likely that is to be the case. Consider the enclave of expats in Houston, which had the highest concentration of respondents to our survey who said they want to come home.
Many can’t. Again, work is the most common factor. For many, moving home would mean a pay cut or a total change in industry.
Many won’t. While a job might be the lure, politics is often the repellent. Absher and his wife have mulled a return to Lafayette several times. But they have a transgender daughter and worry they couldn’t raise her openly in Lafayette. They thought about leaving North Carolina after the General Assembly nearly banned his daughter’s treatment.
Louisiana’s transgender care ban would have crossed Lafayette off their list. Still, Absher says they would never rule out a return. Lafayette’s festival culture offers a kind of community he hasn’t found in Raleigh, and he thinks he could find like-minded people if they ever did return.
“It’s not a no. It would be a very weighted decision,” he says.
Some communities tackle the “values” question head on. Tulsa Remote gets headlines for offering $10,000 grants to bait remote workers, but the program is much more robust. It includes deep community engagement that introduces new arrivals to Tulsa and where they can plug in. About 40% of Tulsa Remoters are boomerangs — i.e. returned expats.
“Many newcomers drawn by the program share just how misguided their initial assumptions about the city, in deep-red Oklahoma, were,” says Economic Innovation Group’s Fikri, who has studied Tulsa Remote’s efficacy. “They found a community in Tulsa they never expected.”
Finding community is a key here. Lafayette expats have set up outposts all over the world. We heard from folks gathering in Chicago, Houston, Denver and ports near and far. Moving cities is a big life event. People who leave home may face inertia in moving back, however drawn they are to where they came from.
“It was bittersweet to leave Lafayette when I did,” George Lae says. “I chose to go college there. I developed friendships and had gone out on my own there. It was tough to leave a place where all that came together.”