Saturday, October 24, 2009

Brain Drain Report: Talent and Churn

I'm back from Maui. Hawaii is the 50th state I've visited. I'm rested, but itching to write and the trip helped to validate a few ideas.

I'll jump back into blogging with a post from Eve Picker:

Pittsburgh is his entry point back into the country. He already has a timeline firmly implanted in his mind for the length of his stay here. Three years and then on to a better place.

My first reaction when he told me this was disappointment. But Chris Briem set me straight. He said “I bet places like Manhattan or Boston, or places one might think are ‘not second best’ are full of transitory people who will not stay.”. And of course, he’s right.

Chris Briem also set me straight. At least, reading his blog and other pieces he authored prompted me to rethink my concern about Pittsburgh brain drain. So, I'm almost certain I understand his frustration when another writer makes the same mistake I made:

Ugh. Brain drain. No, I won't waste any time repeating myself with the errors in that oft-repeated logic. Thus the worst thing the [article] says about us is mostly a misunderstanding.

A declining population doesn't mean brain drain is occurring. In fact, natural decline can result in brain gain. That's the case in Pittsburgh (and other Rust Belt cities) with the less educated dying off and a younger generation more keen on obtaining a college degree. A shrinking city isn't necessarily a dumber city. The talent dividend is still a possibility.

There are a host of myths about brain drain, almost all of them easily debunked. (Hat tip Donald Bonk) I'm already convinced that human capital retention strategies are at least a waste of resources or at worst a boondoggle serving only special interests. (See Grants for Grads in Ohio) Plugging the brain drain is bad policy based on a distortion of the facts.

States and cities are missing the boat. The latest issue of Entrepreneur is case and point. (Hat tip Jim Cossler, Youngstown Business Incubator) My spotlight is on Montana:

For many, moving west means facing the Montana Compromise: You can live in one of the most beautiful areas of the country, but you’ll have to write off any thoughts of a livable income. Bozeman and MSU are working to overcome that. The university, through its Center for Entrepreneurship for the New West, is tapping into the state’s independent streak: Montana has one of the largest shares of small businesses and self-employed people in the nation. Since it was founded in 2001, the facility’s students have provided 10,000 hours of consulting advice to 40 local companies, says center director Scott Bryant. The center’s efforts haven’t yet stemmed the brain drain--roughly half of MSU students still follow their careers out of state. But Bozeman is rapidly solidifying its place as the entrepreneurial hotbed of the Northern Rockies in hopes that its homespun entrepreneurs can live in Big Sky Country and still make the mortgage payment.

The article looks at the best synergies between university and town concerning the retention of entrepreneurial talent. The Montana State story is a good example of how this approach is all wrong. The MSU blurb itself admits as much (see emphasized passage).

Back to my Maui experience. My wife is in software sales and her efforts were rewarded with this trip. I was afforded the opportunity to rub elbows with other enterprise stars. I spoke with a couple residing in Denver. The husband is from Nebraska, the wife from Montana. They expressed a desire to boomerang back to her home state.

I would like to introduce the MSU entrepreneurial program to this Denver-based duo. Montana is a right to work state, which the expatriate noted as standing in the way of their relocation dreams. Here we have two well-educated people with tech employment experience dying to move to Montana.

Talented? Check.

Highly motivated? Check.

Confused about how to move where they most want live? Check.


Rethink the "Montana Compromise" as an attraction problem. Trying to hold onto college graduates is, in a word, dumb. MBA programs strike me as the perfect vehicle to pull in the mid-career candidates described above. Teach them how to create the jobs that allow them to live wherever they want to live. There isn't an advanced degree in the entire universe with this focus. Little wonder why Chris Briem is so frustrated.

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