Saturday, November 07, 2009

Brain Drain Report: Berlin Wall

Thus far, the biggest event of my adult life is the fall of the Berlin Wall. The 9/11 attacks are more memorable, but my entire childhood was in the Cold War era. The "War on Terror" highlights my sense of geopolitical uncertainty after the Soviet Union bogeyman died. I'm still stunned how quickly and completely my world changed.

As a result, I can't get enough of the stories celebrating the 20th anniversary for the reunification of Germany. I've read plenty of blog-worthy articles, but the New York Times looks at the boomerang migration from West Germany to East Germany and seems to be a perfect fit for the themes I explore:

In 1997, when Mr. Siebler was 25, the outlook for engineers in the former East Germany was so bleak that people like him were leaving in droves, creating a huge brain drain from East to West. But in a sign of just how much has changed over the past decade, Mr. Siebler, like a growing number of other Germans from the region, is back.

The exodus and return reminds of the Rust Belt. The best talent would thrive elsewhere, but better opportunities would eventually emerge in the homeland. The transformation might best be characterized by a small city on the Polish border:

In recent years, behind the dingy buildings and unemployment lines, Frankfurt (Oder) has become a magnet for high-tech, high-skilled manufacturing and research. First Solar, a Phoenix-based photovoltaic-module maker, opened a 500-person plant there in 2007 to take advantage of Germany’s burgeoning clean-energy market and eastern Germany’s reputation for inexpensive, high-skilled labor. They haven’t been disappointed: originally designed to produce 100 megawatts of capacity a year, the plant and its workers are so efficient that, three years later, they are producing nearly twice that amount with the same equipment.

It’s a story repeated by foreign investors across the region. “Eastern Germany combines the best advantages of western Germany and Eastern Europe,” says David Wortmann, vice president for policy and communications at First Solar. “You have a very flexible and talented workforce, like in Eastern Europe, but on the other hand you have a superb infrastructure.” ...

... That said, eastern Germany’s skeptics and boosters alike see a similar future, one in which a few metropolitan areas—Berlin, Dresden, Frankfurt (Oder), Leipzig-Halle—reach parity with the West, while vast rural stretches continue to depopulate. That’s not the ideal envisioned by Chancellor Helmut Kohl and the Bonn government in the early 1990s, but maybe that’s not such a problem. “If people wish to move to West Germany, let them,” says Uhlig. “East Germany may become a nature paradise with a few vibrant cities, and I do not see why that would be a bad outcome.”

That might apply just as well to the industrial Midwest. In fact, Youngstown (Ohio) reminds me of Frankfurt (Oder). Youngstown isn't in the middle of nowhere like Frankfurt (Oder), but both small cities are dominated by bigger ones nearby and when I was studying and teaching in Frankfurt (Oder), I could see the possibilities. If I wanted to make my mark on the world, then it would be in a city like this.

Uhlig articulates the main point I want to stress in this post. Let them go. Embrace the shrinking population. Then rebuild a more vibrant economy. But the first step is getting beyond the anxiety about brain drain.

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