Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Talent Attraction Expert Joe Cortright

The talent dividend bandwagon made a recent stop in Akron. Economist Joe Cortright presented his City Vitals work and you can view his talk here. I watched the entire event last night and I didn't note anything groundbreaking. In fact, I'd argue that the policy narrative is flawed. The recommendation for Akron:

''I'm a talent-attraction expert,'' said Cortright. ''I know that the quality of life in a city is very important in [the ability] to anchor talent to that city.'' ...

... ''It's not enough to educate your young people; you also have to pay attention to talent,'' Cortright said. ''You must build a community that makes them want to stay. That's a big challenge in the region because the most mobile tend to be the most entrepreneurial.''

Cortright said ''close-in neighborhoods are the key to keeping young talent. Young people are much more likely to choose to live in close-in neighborhoods.''

Dr. Luis Proenza, president of the University of Akron, said he is proud of the region's ability to keep UA's products.

''We have 28,000 students each year at the University of Akron,'' he said, ''and 85 percent will stay in the region after they graduate.

''We realize with the young, educated people that location matters. So long as they stay in the region, because it's the region that defines our economy and will define the long-term economic vitality for us all.''

Cortright thinks that Akron has a talent retention problem. He's wrong, as Dr. Proenza makes clear. Cortright is peddling more of the same brain drain nonsense. Akron has seen this act before from Next Generation Consulting. I'd expect much more from a self-professed talent attraction expert.

This misunderstanding stems from the sloppy analysis of net migration data. Once again, negative numbers are communicated as out-migration, an exodus of talent. Name one US city that has posted gains among the college educated thanks to improved retention. Makes me wonder why Cortright didn't have any recommendations for Akron talent attraction. For a possible answer, see yesterday's post.


rootvg said...

My wife and I are Akron grads who left the region in 1995.

The problems with NE Ohio as we see it are related to a huge differential in business and popular culture between the midwest and coasts plus a seemingly deliberate disinvestment by the people who control assets in the region with regard to public education and physical infrastructure. All of this plus the ongoing pervasiveness of organized labor in the region's state level politics make for a lethal cocktail when it comes to diagnosing what ails the region's overall economy.

I want to avoid painting with a broad brush but an overwhelmingly large percentage of people who live around Akron and Cleveland, whether consciously or subconsciously, still think it's 1965. If you go to Dallas or Houston or Atlanta, that instantly disappears...and when we initially moved to Dallas in the summer of 1995, we as new graduates could immediately feel the difference.

The Urbanophile said...

Jim, I watched the video of Joe's speech too. In it, he talks about both retention and attraction, as well as investments in education. His view on distinctiveness - i.e. find something about Akron that you can make unique to that place, was also pretty good.

One can argue that the speech uses too much Portland analogy or other things, but I didn't see where it was way off.

I might suggest that given prevalence of the "brain drain" meme, he was simply anchoring himself to something others already are familiar with and believe in. I the early days of my blog, I used to tack on "brain drain" references to support my arguments because I thought it was "one more thing" to get people interested. I've since stopped doing it since I am now more actively opposed to the frame, but I don't think necessarily ought to punish anyone who talks about it. I didn't think brain drain was really the core of his presentation.

Or maybe something else got your attention on this?

Jim Russell said...


Lots of good stuff in Cortright's talk. I didn't mind the constant use of Portland as a baseline. Actually, I thought it effective in terms of making the various concepts easy to understand. I'm comfortable with the metrics presented. Confidence in the data is highlighted and the talk helped me to better appreciate the value of City Vitals.

I connected the talent migration dots using the Akron newspaper because the article context is more accessible for readers. But something else did get my attention. I searched for a newspaper article about the talk after I watched the video to confirm my impression.

Akron scores relatively low on overall educational attainment (I believe it is 25+ for the age cohort). That's followed with the percentage of population aged 18-24 currently enrolled in a post-secondary school. Akron is relatively high, very high. Then we get some net migration numbers and subsequent discussion about brain retention strategies.

Cortright doesn't connect any other dots on this issue of talent migration. There isn't a bit about Akron attracting college educated to the region. At least, I don't recall anything of the kind. Even if he does, the retention policy conclusion isn't earned.

Northeast Ohio doesn't have a problem retaining graduates if you compare those cities to the ones that have high educational attainment rates. Cortright points out that geographic mobility positively correlates with educational attainment. His suggestion that Akron "build a community that makes [talent] want to stay" is confounding, an inherent contradiction at the core of the policy discourse.

In a word, his talent attraction expertise is incoherent.

Jim Russell said...


In my experience, your description of NE Ohio is apt for just about anywhere in the Rust Belt. I think the grass is greener just about anywhere for young adults looking to leave their hometowns.

That's not to say the negatives you describe aren't a problem, but I don't think they damn the region to being a backwater of globalization.

rootvg said...

Jim, one of the issues I see there is the prevailing conventional wisdom that no problem exists. Over and over, we heard "it's not us, it's you" growing up and strangely enough those problems went away with our move to Dallas.

With regard to the decline of auto manufacturing among the domestic makes, once again I think the problem has to do with culture and then (again) with unions. You're asking people who work and live in midwestern cities and towns to manufacture and sell a product to an affluent customer on the coasts whose social and cultural focus is twenty plus years ahead of theirs. Mulally's trying to make it work by forcing modernity on Ford (bringing the Ford Europe product line here, etc) but other than that I think it's a loser. Twenty five and thirty year olds in Marin aren't going to buy Regals or LaCrosses or even Cadillac CTSs. They just won't.

rootvg said...


The point is that I wasn't looking! I was perfectly content to stay in Ohio and find something relatively stable but it never came. Fifteen years later, my wife and I have been back to school three or four times and are employed in technology. That's what got us to the Bay Area and now there's definitely no way we could go back.

Jim Russell said...

That's what got us to the Bay Area and now there's definitely no way we could go back.

You are in good company, but that's the case in just about every shrinking city. Heck, most US cities would have a hard time measuring up to Bay Area living.

rootvg said...

You are in good company, but that's the case in just about every shrinking city. Heck, most US cities would have a hard time measuring up to Bay Area living.

Point well taken, but we didn't have to end up here. We would have been satisfied with less, being able to grow old with family and friends around all of our lives. This isn't what we wanted.

Jim Russell said...

You might be surprised to learn that the Bay Area suffers from brain drain. If it weren't for immigration:


rootvg said...

You might be surprised to learn that the Bay Area suffers from brain drain.

That doesn't surprise me at all. I mean, who the hell can afford to live here? I wouldn't live in Santa Clara. It's too crowded there and the air is very bad during summers. Danville/Alamo can be toasty but the air is clean and we have great neighbors.

Jim Russell said...

I'll put it another way. Northeast Ohio doesn't push out that many people relative to other cities. Doesn't the 85% retention rate of University of Akron graduates surprise you? To be honest, it surprised me. I knew it was high, but didn't expect it to be way above 75%.

rootvg said...

Jim, Akron grads stick around for two reasons. Most of them grew up locally and the Central European-centric culture of NE Ohio isn't something you find most places anymore. Coming from that environment and descending into the pit that is San Francisco's Mission District is like touching 110 volts, not knowing it's coming.

Second, let's be honest...most people coming from there are satisfied with less income and don't feel the need to be high flyers. My wife and I have said many, many times that coming from families without existing histories of college attendance made us work harder, so much harder that we outgrew the area in which we were raised. That's how two kids from blue collar backgrounds who worked their way through school and sacrificed again and again throughout their lives end up living in a million dollar neighborhood in Danville, California...when they didn't even want it.

Anonymous said...

rootvg stay in the hotel california, you are a prisonor of your own device and you can never leave.