EAST WINDSOR — They're supposed to be our future workforce, but apparently they want nothing to do with New Jersey.

The outmigration of New Jersey millennials — those aged 18 to 34 — was the focus of an all-day conference Tuesday, hosted by the New Jersey Business & Industry Association.

According to Census data, millennials are fleeing the state more than any other generation. New Jersey leads the nation in the net outmigration of high school students attending college — 60 percent currently, according to NJBIA President Michele Siekerka.

"We don't want to see this exodus of millennials continue," Siekerka told New Jersey 101.5 prior to the event's launch. "One of our number one assets in the state of New Jersey is that we have a very highly-developed workforce, very sophisticated workforce. If that workforce is leaving the state, we should really be concerned."

Sierkerka said NJBIA's research has revealed affordability as the main New Jersey obstacle that millennials face, from housing to schooling to the basic cost of living.

"I still live with my parents because I can't afford to live on my own unless I get a roommate," said 23-year-old Daniela Velez, an invited panel speaker. "To go to college, have a job, pay bills, and then trying to either get an apartment or even try to get your first home at this age — it's overwhelming and it's not the same as it was for the baby boomers."

Daniela Velez and Brandon Russo
Daniela Velez, 23, and Brandon Russo, 24, spoke as part of a panel at a Tuesday conference on retaining New Jersey millennials. (Dino Flammia, Townsquare Media NJ)

At 47 percent, New Jersey leads the nation in the percentage of 18-to-34-year-olds who live in the same residence as a parental unit.

Another speaker, 24-year-old Brandon Russo, was raised and schooled in New Jersey but works as an engineer in Philadelphia.

"The amount of jobs and the amount of places hiring is much greater out of the state, it seems, than in the state," he said.

According to morning keynote speaker James Hughes, dean of the Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy at Rutgers University, New Jersey added just 23,000 jobs from 2004 to 2015, compared to 674,000 jobs added in New York City during the same time period.

From 1950 to 2004, he noted, New Jersey created 29 jobs for every one NYC job. Since 2004, the tables have turned, resulting in a 29:1 job creation ratio in favor of the Big Apple.

But the interest among millennials in leaving New Jersey may not have as much to do with cost as it does with desire.

Unlike their parents who flocked to the suburbs, Hughes said, today's young workforce is more interested in the "live-work-play" environment where everything you'd need is in walking distance, including public transportation.

"New Jersey's the most suburban of states," he said. "That was our key advantage in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s; now it's a disadvantage."

Given it's the largest of its kind in the country, Hughes said New Jersey's public transit infrastructure is one major asset for New Jersey to build upon in order to keep millennials from exiting the state.

According to Siekerka, New Jersey's higher education offerings are a good starting point for retaining New Jersey's best and brightest. Keeping institutions affordable and innovative could help plug the brain drain.

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Contact reporter Dino Flammia at dino.flammia@townsquaremedia.com.

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