Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Pittsburgh's Talent Dividend

I missed Tuesday's CEOs for Cities gathering in Pittsburgh. That's the problem with living in Colorado and blogging about Pittsburgh. Nonetheless, I'd like to chip in my two cents. I'll start with the reaction at Politics and Place:

First off, I'm very confused by this whole Attract and/or Retain conversation. Obviously you want to do both, but what exactly are both? When you retain are you retaining locals who grew up here, grads of the university, or professionals that you attracted? Are you attracting young families or single professionals?

I tend to suffer from the same confusion. Attraction gets enough lip service these days, but the only policies I see enacted concern retention. From a public standpoint, that tends to mean keeping local talent in town. From a business standpoint, the concern is about employees going to work for a competitor located in a cooler city. Personally, I think retention efforts are a waste of time and resources.

And now a few words from Utterly Opinionated:

Currently Pittsburgh sits in the bottom one-third of 50 metro areas in four year college attainment rates. I’m sure you know the cities that sit at the top of the list. They are cities that thrive and continue to attract talent. Those cities are Washington, San Jose, San Francisco, Boston, Raleigh, Austin, Minneapolis and Seattle. Talent begets talent. ...

... Our best opportunity for achieving the Talent Dividend, may lie in several areas. First, we have many expatriate Pittsburghers who would like to return. Second, we may be able to do a better job retaining the talent we have. Can we do a better job match making people to jobs that are available? There are currently 17,000 positions posted on, the Pittsburgh Regional Alliances new job site. That’s a lot of vacant jobs! Third, there are a large group of people who started college and did not finish. Who are they? How can we help them attain that four year college degree?

The pitch is to increase Pittsburgh's educational attainment by 1%, a laudable goal. The suggestion reminds me of Ed Glaeser's recommendation for Buffalo:

For too long, America’s declining cities have tried to find magic bullets that would bring them back to their former glory. Eighteen months ago, I suggested that Buffalo wasn’t about to come back any time soon. I argued that would be far wiser to accept the reality of decline and focus on investing in human capital that can move out, not fixed physical capital.

What does Dr. Glaeser mean by "human capital that can move out"? Increasing educational attainment increases out-migration. Brain drain. Pay attention, Ohio:

The Fordham study found that students would welcome tax incentives, help with mortgages and other opportunities to stay in Ohio. Internships and co-ops, too, are seen as among the best ways of keeping students in the state.

Not only are college graduates more likely to leave town, the current generation is the most geographically fickle. Those cities that continue to attract talent also sport some of America's highest out-migration rates. So, the second best opportunity to bump up Pittsburgh educational attainment is not retaining talent. It's actively exporting graduates to Burgh Diaspora hotspots. If you can't keep them here, then at least help them end up in a place that is well connected to Pittsburgh opportunities.

But if you insist on retention, I have a solution: Drive down educational attainment by 1%.


Stephen Gross said...

You make an important point. Economic development strategy has to be multipronged, and those prongs have to work together to produce a systematic effect.

Example: Improve educational attainment only. People get more educated. People can't find jobs at their level of education. People move out.

Example: Attract employers for high-educational attainment employees. You offer tax incentives, etc. Employers refuse to move in, because existing labor pool isn't well-educated enough.

Example: Build a giant sports stadium with public dollars. Sports team moves in. Produces some net benefit, mostly low-wage service sector jobs and a few super-high player positions. 20 years later team moves to another city with a newer stadium. Boohoo.

And so on...


Infinonymous said...

The region needs to (1) wrestle the city into submission or (2) abandon the city before it can advance substantially. Young people with resources -- funds, skills, education, motivation, character -- have been departing for decades. That is likely to continue to occur until the region offers economic opportunity for those with a choice.

The solution is not a magic bullet. The Pittsburgh region appears to have sufficient assets to succeed if the city would stop being dysfunction while the broader region improves even slightly. Until the city changes course, however, decline seems likely to continue, and those perceptive enough to recognize it and lucky enough to have a choice will tend to leave.

Retention, in general, is no answer. If mishandled, it could intensify the dilution of the local genepool.