Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Economic Benefits Of Brain Drain

Too little brain drain is bad for the economic health of a region, and not just the ones experiencing relatively high unemployment. Yesterday, I sung the praises of Pittsburgh's success in talent retention. Today, I'll discuss the shortcomings of this approach to workforce development.


When your world is small, you tend to think small. You take for granted the bounties that you have while believing that what's inexorably wrong can never be fixed. You're not prone to adventure. You believe the broken way of our government is the way that all governments work, and you give up trying to change the system or your situation. You accept the inadequate leadership, the status quo.

Karen Heller is describing how the lack of brain drain (the conventional understanding) hurts the community. A columnist for the Cleveland Plain Dealer describes how staying put is not in the best interest of the individual:

This summer, one of the largest state universities in the country -- Ohio State -- is launching a new program to encourage every incoming freshman to get a U.S. passport. The program, Gateway to the World, is designed to encourage roughly 6,600 freshmen -- 30 percent of whom are first-generation college students -- to get used to the idea that their community is a global one.

"A passport is their driver's license for the 21st century," OSU's Dolan Evanovich told me. "We want each of them to consider studying abroad at some point during their time at Ohio State. Right now, about 20 percent of our students do that. We want to double that number with this class."

Evanovich is OSU's vice president for enrollment. He also was the first in his family to go to college, so he understands the reluctance of some working-class parents to embrace a globe-trotting life for their children.

"I'm from the Pittsburgh area," Evanovich said. "It was a big deal for us to drive to Cleveland."

Evanovich made his first trip abroad as a college basketball player. He returned a different man.

Ohio obsesses the outmigration of its college graduates. It does not want its native sons and daughters to go out and see the world, no matter how much the experience might benefit the individual. So the voters and politicians labor to stifle creativity and entrepreneurship. The brain drain plugs are fundamentally anti-innovation. Ohio means a parochial way of doing business.

The same goes for Pennsylvania and Pittsburgh. The Allegheny Conference isn't serious about attracting talent. Almost all of the public and private leadership is focused on talent retention. The region is risk averse. Job creation is chronically anemic. Slow and steady has won the day.

Pittsburgh's success isn't defined by the dramatic rise in educational attainment, at least not in the way you might expect. The stories of the Burgh Diaspora (e.g. the journey of Evanovich) distinguish Southwestern PA from the rest of the Rust Belt. The challenge before us now is how to best manage that expatriate talent.


In a globalised world, with increasing movement of people, huge numbers live not within the boundaries of the state of which they are citizens, but in other countries. More governments are recognising that these citizens represent a great asset abroad. But for these assets to be supported and mobilised effectively, governments need to be able to engage with their overseas populations in a coherent and strategic way.

This is ippr’s conclusion in relation to the British diaspora – a large, diverse and talented group. In follow-up to our Brits Abroad report of 2006, we have researched the extent of British emigrants’ integration into their countries of residence and their continuing attachment to the UK. We conclude that the UK government needs to build on the good work it is already doing by reconceptualising its approach to engaging with the diaspora. This would bring benefits both to emigrants and to the UK.

Ohio's policies of encouraging college students to get a passport and trying to better retain graduates are incoherent, moving in two different directions. Rust Belt states are determined to fight globalization, not take advantage of the opportunities. This mindset is undermining the prosperity of the entire Great Lakes megaregion. The battle to retain talent is a colossal waste of time and resources. Shrinking cities are spending millions of dollars to damage their own regional economies.

I'm not aware of a single Rust Belt community researching possible economic benefits of outmigration. Most of the money goes to retention. Some is spent on attraction. Ohio State University shouldn't promote outmigration until the state figures out how to leverage that talent flow. I doubt the politicians have the stomach to engage in meaningful economic development. Better to pander to the protectionist fervor.

1 comment:

Ms Kitty said...

This really hit home for me. I'm from Ashtabula Ohio, a county that continues to suffer outmigration.

The government of Ashtabula truely doesn't understand that small business will be it's salvation. They are still trying to lure some giant corporation to the area in hopes that it will magically create the 10k jobs lost over the last 40 years.

It is no wonder that there are weeds growing on Main Street where the majority of the buildings are boarded up.

Thanks for some great blog posts.