Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Brain Drain Report: Retention Rationale

There is too much meaty news not to issue a premature Brain Drain Report. As Detroit looks for any chute to slow down its economic free fall, talent migration is a popular topic of conversation. From the overlooking the obvious file:

"They didn't understand people coming here who aren't from here," said his wife Lauren, also a lawyer, over dinner one night at the couple's home in the upscale suburb of Bloomfield. Basically, no one moves to Detroit unless they have family ties in the area, she said. ...

... "We can't just create new entrepreneurs and then let them leave," said Mariam Noland, president of the Community Foundation for Southeast Michigan. "We need to do all the things that are going to attract new talent and make this a desirable place to live in, or to come to. We have to make it so people want to stay."

To that end, Noland raised $100 million in grant money from various foundations, money that is now being used to build the business and cultural institutions that can bring this city back.

There goes $100 million down the brain drain. I understand the desperation. Consider the cost estimates of talent leaving a region, in this case Saskatoon. But that's no reason to ignore the in-migration that is already moving along an established pathway, as if the trailing spouse wasn't as good as the young graduate who left looking for some Beantown Chic.

Tracking the efforts of such well-intentioned and very smart people focused on plugging the brain drain is a bizarre pastime. The mobility paradox is clear (must read article in The Chronicle of Higher Education):

Our year and a half spent interviewing the more than 200 young people who had attended the town's high school in the late 1980s and early 1990s led us to categorize our young Iowans according to the defining traits of where their lives had taken them by their 20s and 30s. The largest group, approximately 40 percent, consisted of the working-class "stayers," struggling in the region's dying agro-industrial economy; about one in five became the collegebound "achievers," who often left for good; just 10 percent included the "seekers" who join the military to see what the world beyond offers; and the rest were the "returners," who eventually circled back to their hometowns, only a small number of whom were professionals we call "high fliers." What surprised us most was that adults in the community were playing a pivotal part in the town's decline by pushing the best and brightest young people to leave, and by underinvesting in those who chose to stay, even though it was the latter that were the towns' best chance for a future.

I don't see why anyone should be surprised at the push factors for the brightest. On a family level, you want the best for your children. Leaving home is, without a doubt, very advantageous for the individual. But for the community, it is a suicidal practice. We are, only now, coming to terms with these structurally divided interests.

In an attempt to reconcile these opposing forces, sociologists Patrick J. Carr and Maria J. Kefalas make some good recommendations. But they overlook the individual/community tension. From the framework of aligning these two actors, effective policy could be sculpted. And $100 million would be put to much better use than making it so people want to stay.

1 comment:

Lady Elaine said...

The unemployment rate is 17% in Detroit--the national unemployment rate is 10%.

When the steel industry oollapsed in Beaver County, unemployment exploded to 28%.

Brain drain? Retention?

There's a mass exodus of jobs, not people. The brain drain is something Pittsburgh has been dealing with for years. If there are no jobs, then goodbye to talent. If your schools suck, then goodbye to families. It is all inter-connected. And what's left is a stagnant tax-base.

The politicians must be willing do brownfield redevelopment and let go of a past of only making only and expand beyond it, bringing in a new era for Detroit.

I think brain drain for young people is code for this city sucks the life out of me, they don't listen, it's corrupt, hopeless and it will be years before the old people get their heads out of their asses so why bother living here when I can get an equally crappy job in a more progressive city like NY?