Thursday, December 31, 2009

Decade Down The Brain Drain

I didn't intend to write a review of the last 10 years. I've been on the blog scene only since June 1st, 2006. I've been asked by members of the press to recall the highlights for Pittsburgh and, strangely enough, Las Vegas. I guess I'm more qualified to write the Decade in Brain Drain. Prepare to get flushed ...

The pinnacle of 2000 is easy enough to figure. Chris Briem's restrained dig at Border Guard Bob is still the best assessment of a brain dead approach to the shrinking city problem that I've read. The WWBGBD (What Would Border Guard Bob Do?) is the standard for lame brain drain policy. I've come to appreciate that Bob is a popular guy with a residence in just about every town and city around the country. 2000 seems like it was tomorrow.

In 2001, I was spending too much time working for a Pittsburgh Steelers fansite and not enough time researching my dissertation. That summer, I covered my first camp at St. Vincent. During the two weeks I was there (instead of in Colorado at the library), the analogy of Steeler Nation with a transnational diaspora community began to crystallize. More significantly, I felt a strong tug of obligation to my Rust Belt homeland that I left so long ago. Unaware of the Border Guard Bob fiasco, I dedicated myself to solving the Rust Belt brain drain problem.

2002 was the year of Richard Florida and his creative class migration theory. A fellow geography graduate student left a photocopy of this article on my desk. I didn't think much of the city rankings. But the lead anecdote resonated emotionally:

Over the years, I have seen the community try just about everything possible to remake itself so as to attract and retain talented young people, and I was personally involved in many of these efforts. Pittsburgh has launched a multitude of programs to diversify the region's economy away from heavy industry into high technology. It has rebuilt its downtown virtually from scratch, invested in a new airport, and developed a massive new sports complex for the Pirates and the Steelers. But nothing, it seemed, could stem the tide of people and new companies leaving the region.

What could be done about brain drain? I love difficult riddles. I was hooked.

I blogged about three reports from the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis published in 2003. The Fed reviewed the brain drain problem and the policy reactions. The money passage:

Pennsylvania, for example, is spending $12 million on an initiative called “Stay Invent the Future” that's aimed at reversing outward migration of college-educated folks believed to be upwards of 10,000 annually. Part of the money went to a nationwide TV ad campaign to woo workers back home that featured a joe-six-pack “fairy job mother” wearing a tutu, wings and construction boots. ...

... The goal of these and other brain drain programs “is to keep the best and brightest from high school from leaving the state,” according to Tom Mortenson, head of Postsecondary Education Opportunity, a small policy firm in Oskaloosa, Iowa. “In a narrow sense, I understand what states are doing. They are proud of the talent raised there and they don't want to lose it.”

Whether any of these programs is effective at addressing brain drain is largely unknown because very little research has been done on the issue of brain drain itself, to say nothing about the efficacy of policy responses to the problem.

There's been considerably more work done on the scope of the brain drain problem since then, but most of it isn't worth noting. As for efficacy, nada. Which is why Border Guard Bob could come out of retirement tomorrow.

Poland joined the European Union in 2004, swelling the ranks of the Polish Diaspora in countries such as Ireland. This migration was of personal interest to me because I was in Frankfurt (Oder) for three weeks before the German-Poland border opened up studying transnational community and identity. I was consuming a lot of diaspora theory and literature in preparation for my upcoming comprehensive exams (migration was one of my subfields). I was introduced to a lot of ideas that summer and they inform my thinking about how to leverage brain drain for purposes of economic development.

Who could forget 2005? Even if you are a Seahawks fan, you are still griping about the officiating. Technically, the Steelers won the Super Bowl in 2006. But the 2005 season was one wild ride. My wife and I were expecting our first child, who almost came a bit early during the playoff game against the Indianapolis Colts. We were watching Pittsburgh dominate at a Steelers bar in Fort Collins, Colorado. The turn of events towards the end of the match up initiated some labor pains, which seemed to abate once Mike Vanderjagt missed that last second field goal attempt. Conveniently, our son was born between the AFC Championship victory in Denver and Super Bowl XL in Detroit. My wife is a Pittsburgh native and her father came all the way out West to watch the big game with us (and see his first grandchild). It was a perfect Burgh Diaspora moment.

As noted above, I started blogging in 2006. Within the first two months, I gave up on the idea of trying to keep talent in Pittsburgh. I was more interested in the potential of diaspora networking like the ones I had studied in Miami. That out-migration from Pittsburgh was relatively low surprised me. Brain drain wasn't really the problem, despite what Richard Florida wrote in his books.

The best book I read in 2007 was "The New Argonauts: Regional Advantage in a Global Economy" by AnnaLee Saxenian. Saxenian wrote a paper that describes the concept of brain circulation. I was excited by the idea that brain drain could be a good thing. I still think brain circulation could apply to Pittsburgh and other Rust Belt cities. International migration doesn't map onto domestic migration as neatly as I would like, but many of the policy proposals are promising. More importantly, discussions about international economic development were undergoing a dramatic transformation.

2008 was a great year. I put together the Rust Belt Bloggers Summit in Erie, which led to a proper introduction to Youngstown. In October, VisitPittsburgh and PodCamp Pittsburgh treated me like the social media rock star that I'm not. I headed into 2009 thinking that I was on the cusp of something big, that I could make a significant impact on brain drain policy. All the research seemed to support my approach.

As this year draws to a close, my feet are firmly back on the ground. Landing funding for Greater Youngstown 2.0 was the highlight of 2009. Now, I'm not sure where all of this is going. However, I'm more confident than ever that I am on the right track. The World Bank report "Reshaping Economic Geography" validates much of my intuition on geographic mobility as something to be encouraged. I've refined the boomerang migration idea to the point of being actionable. Remarkably, I'm still enthusiastic about studying brain drain and talent migration. I'm not the least bit bored. Brain gain Pittsburgh is a fascinating story that is still unfolding, challenging all the Chicken Littles decrying the exodus from an uncool Rust Belt city.

Happy New Year, Pittsburgh.


The Urbanophile said...

Jim, your blog is fantastic, one of the best. It has hugely influenced my thinking on the issue of talent. Your ideas deserve much more recognition and above all to be actioned in more cities. Best of luck to you in 2010.

Jim Russell said...


Thanks for the kind words. Love the recognition you received in Governing:

Well, then, maybe there are changes that might take place short of formal megaregional power sharing. Aaron Renn, the urbanist who is probably the most incisive critic of megaregions, has suggested some. Elected leaders from cities within a megaregion might join together informally and decide on a policy of specialization. Within a region that included the old-fashioned metropolises of Cincinnati, Indianapolis and Louisville (Gottmann would probably call this "CindiLou"), it might be agreed that Cincinnati would be the corporate headquarters town, Indianapolis would be a health and science center, and Louisville would focus on tourism. Could this happen? Theoretically, yes. Is there any evidence that it is even beginning to happen, in any identifiable megaregion in America? No. As Renn writes, "None of these cities is giving up an inch in fighting for all three items."

Ehrenhalt pretty much ripped off your blog post about megaregions, which is a high compliment.

The Urbanophile said...

Thanks. It is nice to be called the "most incisive critic" of something, though to be fair, it's easy when you have the field virtually to yourself. I don't think they ripped it off really, since he did reference my original. (A link back would have been nice, however).

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