Saturday, September 19, 2009

Brain Drain Report: Diaspora Networking

The Emigrant Advice Network blog is providing extensive coverage of the Global Irish Economic Forum. I'm following the reports out of Dublin because of the implications for economic development policy regarding rethinking of the brain drain problem. As Ireland grapples with another exodus of talent, it explores novel approaches to managing the increasing geographic mobility of labor:

More and more national governments are introducing diaspora strategies and recognising the role that key members of the diaspora can play in developing their home economies without having to return home permanently. Brain drain can become brain gain and brain exchange. Israel, India, China and Taiwan have led the way with innovative programmes all based on reaching out, identifying and engaging with their global populations.

Ironically, economic turmoil seems to be the best time to introduce new ideas. With no jobs to entice young professionals to stay, going with the flow is the only viable option. Enter The Ireland Funds, founded in Pittsburgh, with its "Comparative Review of International Diaspora Strategies":

Considering the diaspora as a national asset is certainly not a new phenomenon, nor is it unique to Ireland. Governments around the world are beginning to think about engaging their overseas populations in innovative ways. Rather than viewing expatriate business, cultural, scientific and policy actors as ‘lost’ to their countries of origin, active efforts are now being made to identify and link highly skilled offshore citizens to national economic development projects through initiatives such as formal mentoring programmes, international advisory boards, and investment programmes, with the support of home institutions.

Global economic development discourse has moved strongly away from retention strategies. Geographic mobility is something to be encouraged. As I've argued before, initiatives designed to plug the brain drain are relics of a time when manufacturing dominated the national economic geography. The best example of this disconnect are all the dysfunctional municipal pension programs in Rust Belt cities. And now Columbus looks to be joining the party. Brain drain hysteria is sure to follow. Enter EasyColumbus:

Alarmed community leaders realized that there wasn't any organization or plan to help retain those students, said Dan Rosenthal, co-chairman of EasyColumbus and formerly of NetJets. "The key is connecting with them while they're in school. Unfortunately, we're not succeeding at that right now."

That's the key? This common myth supports some of the most egregious brain drain boondoggles. I'd like to see where this strategy has worked. Provide one example. Retention is futile.

That doesn't mean attraction strategies are a panacea. The Urbanophile takes Cincinnati to task:

@_miller pointed me at this article in the Cincinnati Business Courier about talent attraction. A consultant hired by the city says that "affordability" is the city's biggest asset and that "Tri-State’s message should be that the region has big-city amenities, and young people can afford to live here."


This misses the mark badly. Yes, affordability is part of the equation for cities in Cincy's size class. But you can't hang your hat on that. Riddle me this, how does affordability convince someone to pick Cincinnati over Louisville, Indy, Columbus, St. Louis, Milwaukee, Nashville, Charlotte, Austin, Kansas City, etc., etc., etc. all of whom can offer the exact same value proposition of "big city amenities at low cost". If Cincinnati were the only low cost city in America, this might work, but it is merely one among a huge number.

Aaron Renn didn't provide a link to the article in question. I found it here. The consultant is none other than Rebecca Ryan from Next Generation Consulting. I should have guessed.

The Dallas area has always been an affordable office market, and with a commercial real estate shakeout looming, more bargains abound.

In a midyear comparison of average office rents, real estate service firm Jones Lang LaSalle ranked Dallas 24th in office rents among the 31 cities it compared.

Some of the few cities cheaper than Dallas are Detroit, Cleveland and Pittsburgh. Let's hope that low-cost office space is all we have in common with the Rust Belt capitals.

Land-rich boomtowns, like Dallas, can offer the same kind of value proposition that Cincinnati can bring to the table. Read a little Ed Glaeser or Joel Kotkin and you will get the gist of the comparative advantage. The assets of shrinking cities are a bit more complicated. I recommend saving a few dollars and watching Anthony Bourdain's "No Reservations". First city to embrace Rust Belt Chic as a branding campaign wins.

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