Saturday, December 19, 2009

Midwest Brain Drain

I need to revisit Richard Longworth's post about rural brain drain. He reviews "Hollowing Out The Middle" and invokes a phrase as arresting as "ruin porn". Rural communities are committing "civic suicide". Children are encouraged to get out of town and seek opportunity elsewhere. But the problem isn't the one-way ticket to Chicago. Those who decide to stay are chronically under-educated. Longworth buys into the policy suggestion that the answer to rural brain is to invest in the human capital left behind.

I bring this up again because of an interview in the first issue of Forefront. Matthew Kahn has a suggestion for Appalachia:

Appalachia could increase its stock of skilled people in two ways. First, if they can grow their own, such as young people who go to Appalachian State University and after graduation stay. Second, if someone goes to UCLA in Los Angeles and says to heck with this and moves to Appalachia.

But in truth, when I looked at the data, nobody outside of Appalachia who is highly skilled is moving to the region. In my opinion, Appalachia's best chance to raise its skill level is to grow its own and then get aggressive in retaining them. It's like a baseball team with a minor league farm system for growing new stars and then doesn't lose them to free agency.

If I were a mayor or governor in the states that comprise Appalachia, I think I would talk more to the 22-year-olds finishing Appalachian State University and West Virginia University, and ask them—are you staying? If they are going, what was the factor that pushed them out? Was it jobs? Was it that it's boring here? And then use the clues from that survey to design a set of policies to encourage them to stay. The challenges Appalachian cities face are: They are relatively small, not on the coast, many have cold winters, and the economy is undiversified. They have manufacturing and mining but not much "Google" activity.

So if a computer science major at Appalachian State wanted to stay in the region, what are the set of jobs he could get right now? That's the question I'd like to ask the governor. Those are the fights the governor needs to win to increase the skill base of the region.

The focus is on retention. Longworth isn't suggesting this policy approach. But if you read Kahn's research, then you'll see something similar to the conclusions drawn in "Hollowing Out The Middle." Kahn's point is that these towns and cities in Appalachia are unlikely to attract the kind of talent that most typically leaves the region. The same is true for the rural Midwest. At least, that's the perception.

There exists a gaping hole in this analysis. What drives out-migration from major concentrations of talent? The focus is on what makes global cities so attractive. Little work is done on why people leave and where they go. These golden metros sport substantial out-migration rates. This demographic represents low hanging fruit for smaller cities and town so devastated by brain drain.

Furthermore, Pittsburgh is the poster child for the aggressive investment in local human capital. When the next downturn hits, your town will lose an entire generation of talent. Pittsburgh could afford (barely) to wait 25 years for the payoff. I doubt small town Iowa can do the same.

Attracting outsiders to a shrinking community would be ideal. That's unlikely, as Pittsburgh demonstrates. The least policy evil is encouraging more boomerang migration. I'm reminded of a post from last year:

I'm not crazy. Helping graduates leave your region is a sound talent management strategy. At least, I've finally found someone putting this idea into action.

The Niswonger Foundation (operating in the heart of Appalachia) supports the only US initiative that I've encountered that actually promotes brain drain. I highly recommend reading the article about Scott Niswonger's ideas for economic development. The plan is to transform the community into a place that homegrown talent would appreciate and lure them back once they get the worldly experience the region so desperately needs.

Rural Iowa isn't going to approximate a few years in Chicago no matter how much it invests in those who stay. On the contrary, such an initiative will only maintain the cycle of poverty and fuel greater brain drain.


The Urbanophile said...

Places where people global cities end up and why. Sounds like a nice geography Ph.D. dissertation topic....

Jim Russell said...

I was thinking it might make a great book a la Richard Longworth.

I know about a few studies of secondary immigration relocation patterns that might act as a good surrogate. Domestic secondary migration is a bit of a mystery. At least, that's been my experience with mapping the Youngstown Diaspora.