Tuesday, April 06, 2010

Small City Attraction

A guest editorial at Rust Wire ponders the fate of third-tier (and further down the urban hierarchy) cities. The author clarifies the concern in the comments section:

Should a city like Cleveland, Buffalo, or St. Louis actively recruit young talented people from smaller cities nearby? Or just make due with whoever is there or whoever wanders in and likes what they find? When rustbelt cities had their growth spurts in the past, a large part of their new population was coming off the farms and out of small towns. There was a lot of natural increase (4-8 kids/family) so they weren’t necessarily depleting the countryside.

Since Erie is one of the cities discussed, I'll use it as an example. For shrinking cities, skimming off the cream from urban areas lower on the food chain makes sense. The Erie Diaspora in Pittsburgh is proof of concept. Expatriates from my hometown sure have put a big stamp on Pittsburgh's social media scene. To some extent, I'm part of it. I'd rather see my fellow natives move to another part of the Rust Belt as opposed to Charlotte (where most of my kin relocated). However, the destination matters little to Erie. Brain drain is brain drain.

Believe it or not, people do move to Erie. Truth is, we don't know much about the talent churn within the Rust Belt. We know all about the exodus to the Sun Belt. We know all about friends and family leaving our birthplace. I haven't studied Erie demographics, but I can tell you that many newcomers in Youngstown hail from Pittsburgh. There's no rule against smaller cities targeting outmigrants from bigger cities. For a good example, see this story about Iowa. Big cities push out more people. Big, successful cities push out even more people.

Some thoughts on the matter from Ryan Avent:

Say that you have one kind of skilled worker who likes to live near other skilled workers for the mundane benefits of agglomeration: access to suppliers and clients and the advantages of a deep labour market. For this worker, any large, skilled market is an attractive place to be. Then there is another kind of skilled worker who enjoys those benefits of agglomeration but also the externality-oriented benefits: things like knowledge spillovers in specialised industries or Jacobs externalities, in which urban diversity breeds serendipitous opportunities. The first category of worker is happy to be in any collection of skilled workers. The second, on the other hand, needs to be among other externality-dependent skilled workers.

It's open season on the first kind of skilled worker. At least, that may be the case. Whatever the reality, we would do well to understand the market. What kind of talent can Erie reasonably expect to attract?

The author of the Rust Wire editorial misses this part of the migration equation. Of course, so does Cleveland, Buffalo and St. Louis. Every place, shrinking or growing, has a talent retention initiative. Few have anything like a talent attraction initiative, particularly in the Rust Belt. Let's face it, there isn't the job creation to justify either approach.

Why would I run through a brick wall to live in Erie?


Stephen Gross said...

To what extent do you think career advancement plays a role in relocation decisions? That is, if you compare two workers in the same industry with different ascendancy paths, what do their respective relocation narratives say about them?

One worker is a financial analyst, but not ambitious. He remains at the technical level, never moving up into management.

The other worker is also a financial analyst, but is ambitious and is promoted to management.

What happens to these two workers? Does the advancing worker seek to live in a larger labor market? Or does he stick with a smaller labor market, knowing that as a big fish in a smaller pond his economic changes are better?


Jim Russell said...

I'd guess that the ladder-climbing (or lack thereof) has little to do with relocation decisions. Typically, one doesn't work her way up the urban hierarchy like she does inside the firm.

Moving upmarket happens early on, before career advancement. That said, there is a positive correlation between ambition and migration. (e.g. immigrants as entrepreneurs)