Saturday, March 14, 2009

From Barstow to Wawa: Hitchhiking Tar Pits

What's worse than talent leaving your region, never to return?

How about being stuck in a state with no job prospects? That's the story in Michigan, where the unemployed don't know where to move in order to find work:

Due to the worsening job market in the rest of the country, Kenneth Darga, the state's demographer, said he expects Michigan's net migration rate, now the worst in the nation at -9.2%, to show some improvement in the short term.

But Michigan isn't unique, he said. Around the country, more people are staying put.

Yet growing numbers of unemployed people stuck in Michigan also could hurt the state, increasing crime and boosting the need for food aid and other types of social assistance.

The main problem, as I see it, is an extended employment network in all the wrong places. Texas is still trying to attract teachers from hard-hit California. Other places to job hunt are along the Pittsburgh-DC axis and Virginia Beach. That's about it. Traditional Rust Belt relocation destinations, such as Phoenix and Charlotte, aren't much better than Michigan. If you know anyone in Texas, then I suggest giving them a call.

I can't stress enough the value of geographic mobility for workers:

[Indermit S Gill, director of WDR and regional chief economist for the World Bank's Europe and Central Asia region,] pointed out that as education was an aspiration that cut across all regions, migration towards centres of economic concentration would follow. ''You can't be for more education and against more migration,'' he said in response to a question on the social fallout of large-scale internal migration.

For the looming talent shortage, recruiting is much more important than retaining. Trying to get locals to stay is the same thing as denying them the education they need to succeed. On the whole, brain drain policies are destructive. And, the push for higher education for more people will inevitably exacerbate out-migration. Policymakers don't seem to grasp the paradox.

Despite the stubborn adherence to outdated approaches to workforce development, some regions have launched innovative initiatives to deal with a shrinking population and shortage of talent:

Launched in Newry today by the Southern Regional College ( engaging with Dundalk Institute of Technology ( IQ360 Cross-Border Brain Gain also seeks to encourage internationally mobile entrepreneurs and locally-based 'would-be' entrepreneurs in knowledge-based sectors who commute daily to Belfast or Dublin to set up businesses in the expanding cross-border "corridor."

The campaign is being kick-started by an intense cross-border marketing and advertising campaign and a powerful internet site which will showcase the help available online and face-to-face in Newry and Dundalk.

"A programme of this kind has never been offered before," says Kieran Fegan, manager of Greenshoots Incubation and Innovation Centre in Newry ( which is a joint initiative with the University of Ulster. "A key aim of IQ360 is to attract expatriates with new or existing business ideas and new intellectual property to this cross-border region."

Sean MacEntee, manager of the Regional Development Centre at Dundalk Institute of Technology says, "Business incubation is a process, not just a place. Supports such as mentoring, special advice, access to researchers and networking are far more important than bricks and mortar. These supports will be available online to expatriates from anywhere in the world, as well as face-to-face in Newry or Dundalk."

The programme is aimed mainly at the engineering, software, ICT, creative and digital media, as well as renewable energy and assistive living sectors. Operated from the two colleges, it has been funded by the Department of Employment and Learning in Northern Ireland and covers counties South Down, Armagh and Louth.

Building such a network is one way to derive a return on the investment in people who leave. But communities first have to recognize the value of out-migration and make peace with the shifting economic landscape. In fact, I think successful out-migration would attract more in-migration as others learn about the network and the opportunities it provides. We've seen a similar relocation pattern between urban centers and the surrounding suburbs, which are out-migration factories. Suburban schools do a great job of increasing geographic mobility, which is why so many talented adults with children want to live there.

No comments: