Friday, April 30, 2010

Forbes: Pittsburgh America's Most Livable City

Perusing Null Space this morning, I see an interesting update to a recent post. Pittsburgh is near the top, in a good way, of a variety of rankings. You love the lists when your city is portrayed in a positive light. You hate them if your hometown is near the bottom. I don't put much stock in the metrics either way. I'm more curious about the metanarrative of place:

Each year Carnegie Mellon's Tepper School of Business attracts some of the brightest master's degree candidates in the country. But the admissions staff occasionally has to sway prospective students with their choice of top schools who wonder why they should relocate to Pittsburgh, Pa.

With Pittsburgh sitting on top of the livability rankings, Forbes has a lot of explaining to do. A commenter at Null Space defines the expectation:

These are people without much detailed familiarity with Pittsburgh. Many have never even been here. But there is nonetheless some strong image of Pittsburgh in their mind, such that in order to explain why they won't even consider a life here, they think all they have to say is something like, "Yeah, but it's Pittsburgh."

That's the challenge that Tepper faces in luring quality students who have never been to Southwestern Pennsylvania. The reason Forbes chose that story to describe livable Pittsburgh is twofold. The first is the surprise of Pittsburgh as #1. The second is the common theme connecting the best cities:

Pittsburgh's strong university presence--the city has over a dozen colleges or campuses--helps bolster its livability. In fact, the key to finding the easiest places to live may be to follow the students. Most of the metros on our list--including Ann Arbor, Mich., Provo, Utah, and Manchester, N.H.--are college towns.

Forbes also mentions the "Rust Belt Renaissance", which concisely explains a cornerstone of Pittsburgh's successful redevelopment strategy:

Working with the [Pittsburgh Technology Council], workforce developers, industry leaders and foundations, Pittsburgh’s economic developers aligned their efforts to reposition Pittsburgh’s universities and colleges as economic anchors. The goal was to steer an innovation-led transformation in partnership with Carnegie Mellon University, the University of Pittsburgh, the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center and the 45 additional institutions of higher education in the region.

Health care and higher education account for the biggest number of job openings, but financial services also is strong, according to a Pittsburgh Business Times survey of the region’s 50 largest employers, which found at least 4,664 job openings. Employment giants the University of Pittsburgh and University of Pittsburgh Medical Center combined make up 1,257 of the slots, but some small businesses also are reporting significant growth.

As the Forbes livability rankings suggest, putting your economic eggs in the higher education basket was a smart bet. But Pittsburgh isn't all eds and meds:

Robust hiring also continues at Westinghouse Electric Co., which has added 5,000 employees during the past four years, two-thirds of which were new positions, according to company spokesman Vaughn Gilbert. Westinghouse has international operations, but 60 percent of the new hires were from western Pennsylvania.

The torrid pace of hiring at Westinghouse is expected to cool to around 750 people annually in a “year or two,” Gilbert said. Positions range from ones requiring a two-year degree to electrical and mechanical engineers, information technology specialists and project managers.

As I've endeavored to detail, Pittsburgh's energy industry is both booming and diversified. I don't think the other college towns in the Forbes top-ten sport anything like it, not to mention the major urban amenities leftover from the industrial heyday. Which brings me to the last part of the emerging metanarrative:

In only a few of our most livable cities does population growth match prospects for employment and inexpensive living. Provo saw an 8% population boom between 2000 and 2006, and the head count in Omaha rose by 7.2% over the same period. In most of the cities on the list, however, the population has shrunk, or grown only by meager percentages, suggesting that word about the quality of life there hasn't yet gotten out. Being a well-kept secret is just fine for some residents.

"I'm a big proponent of Pittsburgh," says [Wendy Hermann, director of student services for Carnegie Mellon master's programs and a Pittsburgh native. "But I don't want to spread the message too much."

The list highlights a number of undiscovered gems. The Austin-like rush has yet to materialize:

Chances are you’ve heard it at least once or maybe even said it yourself: “I took a pay cut to come to Austin.” The labor market in Austin can be ruthless. The metropolitan area is adding 50,000-60,000 people per year–roughly the size of the city of San Marcos–and many of those moving here have both talent and multiple diplomas to hang on the wall. With relatively few large corporate headquarters and a business culture that celebrates bootstrapping, competition for good jobs with a career track is fierce. It’s the double-edged sword of an entrepreneurial region.

A city can be too attractive. I doubt outsiders are ready to take a pay cut to move to Pittsburgh. At least, not yet. However, talented Pittsburgh natives are willing to make less money in order to stay. That's what makes the local labor market so daunting to expatriates who would love to return.

I recently had an email exchange with Trisha Ross, Program Manager for The Regional Internship Center at Coro Pittsburgh. Here's the pitch concerning the successful retention of talent that has boosted the regional educational attainment:

Since 2003, we have successfully helped match over 4,000 internship seekers with employers throughout Southwestern Pennsylvania. We've worked with over 1,500 regional employers and over 70 regional universities.

We also have an initiative called Internships to Jobs (I2J). Hiring individuals with internship experience can increase the efficiency of organizations and positively affect the bottom line by lowering costs associated with turnover. The goal of Internships to Jobs is to provide support to regional employers that recognize the value of internship programs and are looking to hire an intern full-time within the next two years.

We also host the Interns Summer Program each year, which is a series of social, professional and cultural summer events in June and July for interns, which showcase some of the best amenities Pittsburgh has to offer. By creating a social experience that highlights the Pittsburgh area, the RIC hopes to encourage these interns to consider staying in or relocating to this area upon graduation, and adding their talent permanently to our regional companies.

The Interns Summer Program 2010 will showcase the Pittsburgh region to interns as a dynamic place to work, but also a place to have engaging experiences outside of work.

While I'm still skeptical of brain drain plug initiatives, I have no doubt that Pittsburgh has managed to keep the best and brightest from leaving. Coro Pittsburgh would seem to be one of the agents for this success. The chronic lament about the exodus of young adults is and has been misinformation. There wasn't a flight of the creative class unless you go back to the early 1980s. The difference between Austin and Pittsburgh concerns attraction.

Concerning the talent that did leave Pittsburgh, the fierce loyalty to their hometown helps to explain the subsequent retention. Those who know Pittsburgh, love Pittsburgh. If you believe that people vote with their feet, then you must acknowledge the veracity of the native passion (which can be, by the way, downright dysfunctional). Smart people who could easily relocate chose to stay. They likely took a substantial pay cut to do so. Other places fretting about brain drain might look at Pittsburgh in order to figure why this happens.


Kelsey Halling said...

Thanks for the Coro shout-out!

As a young professional not originally from this area, I fell in love with this town while in college, and have happily remained.

Go Pittsburgh!!!

hifromkelly said...

Thanks for mentioning The Regional Internship Center! The RIC is a great organization where I am an intern right now!