Thursday, May 06, 2010

Great Recession Talent Migration: Youngstown Paradigm

As the Greek debt crisis deepens, political uncertainty is on the rise. The downturn has effectively gummed up migration, most significantly in the United States. Promoting his new book, Richard Florida thinks this country needs a geographic mobility stimulus:

I think the great advantage that the U.S. has had in being a competitive, innovative and productive country, is that its had great labor mobility. What's happened now is that so many people are just trapped in houses they can't sell. U.S. mobility is at the lowest levels that it's been in decades. And I think this is the biggest long-run constraint on our ability to reset and recover.

Boy, oh boy, if folks are trapped in their homes - they can't get out; they can't sell them; they can't recoup their investment; they can't move - the long-term cost for them - as individual and families, for cities, but most importantly for the U.S. economy as a whole - I think that's really the thing that our president and our policymakers need to take into consideration.

In a jobless recovery, home ownership doesn't matter. Where are you going to move for work? With a few notable exceptions (e.g. Ireland and Iceland), the global pattern is one of hunkering down at home. Those stuck abroad when everything blew up are returning. The migration bubble has burst. Time to get back to the place you know best.

Until about 2005, Youngstown was a hard sell to young creative types. Now, though, there is a small community of tech people who have come back to their hometown, to embrace the place as though it were the lost Holy Land. The group's guiding spirit is Tyler Clark, a 34-year-old musician and Web-strategy consultant who serves as YBI's "chief imagination officer," helping local businesses spruce up their websites. Clark grew up in Texas and went to Youngstown State University; as an undergrad, he was the musical director at the Youngstown Playhouse. He bounced around after graduation, living in suburban Virginia and Tucson, but then, in 2006, a good friend in Youngstown fell ill. Clark's wife, Jaci, a photographer who grew up here, came back, and the visit was a revelation. The Clarks bought a meticulously maintained five-bedroom Millionaire's Row manse, once the home of Sharon Steel president Henry Roemer, for $188,000.

For those of you in Pittsburgh who know Jess Trybus, Jaci's story is quite similar to hers. Both created their own jobs in order to move back home. If you want expatriates to return, then focus on the women.

I'm not sure if Youngstown has figured that out, but you shouldn't doubt that the re-purposing of the positive media is all about courting the Youngstown Diaspora:

In the meantime, supporters believe the positive press will be what's needed to bring Valley natives who've left the area back home again.

"All these articles that they're reading while they're in Columbus or California or Atlanta," said Phil Kidd, of Defend Youngstown. "That's what's making them want to move back, and they're going to bring all that experience and they're going to bring all those contacts and those networks back to Youngstown."

Phil Kidd and Jim Cossler are speaking directly to the displaced natives through these national publications. The sell is polished. The buzz is growing. To what end?

The reasons many return to Michigan run the gamut. Some are lured by the desire to be near family and friends. Some see an economic landscape ripe for entrepreneurial opportunities, and others are heeding a call to invest in their native state and help bring Michigan out of its lingering slump.

They're also bucking a trend: In what's been dubbed the "brain drain" many college graduates and young professionals are leaving for greener pastures in other states. The repatriated Michiganians are undeterred by the state's high unemployment, the implosion of the automotive industry and a host of other economic woes.

"When times are tough, people tend to move back home," said John Challenger, a consultant at Challenger, Gray and Christmas, a Chicago-based business consulting firm. "Starting (a business) where you know people is crucial."

Now is not the time to throw caution to the wind and move to Portland, Oregon. Strong networks awash in social capital mean more now than they ever did. Greater numbers of Americans renting won't turn back that clock. Florida is out of touch with the current economic landscape.

If Rust Belt talent decides en masse to respect the homing beacon, then the Sun Belt is screwed. Industrial Heartland politicians should continue promoting home ownership. It's to their constituency's advantage. Come live like a robber baron at a faction of the cost. The best growth opportunities are now in the elder parts of urban America.

Better yet, policymakers should incentivize boomerang migration. Re-appropriate all the money earmarked for brain drain plugs to facilitating expatriate return. The brain drain boondoggles are in full bloom (post coming soon). Youngstown is the only US community I know about trying to go against the grain. Get on board, Senator Sherrod Brown.

1 comment:

Steve said...

In a jobless recovery, home ownership doesn't matter. Where are you going to move for work?

That's true. And even if moving for work was an option, it's not the house holding someone back. If they really need a job they will move first and then worry about selling the house.

The real reasons someone might not consider moving for a job are reasons like family, particularly if there are kids in school. And what about the spouse's job? Home ownership is not going to hold someone back.