Thursday, June 03, 2010

Getting Serious About Talent

Aaron Renn (The Urbanophile) just fired a shot across the bow of Pittsburgh and every other region pretending to be serious about attracting talent. My own blog journey serves as a metaphor for the feigned interest in brain gain. Also in the post is Aaron's own experience:

Through my writing and travels, I’ve met a lot of people, including many senior civic leaders. I’m always watching to see if they will pitch me on their city. Not that they would necessarily offer me a job, but at least try to sell their city to me as a place I might personally want to live in, as a place for me to make a home or build a career. Not one person has ever even tried. All they want is for me to write something nice about them. You can be very sure they pitch that idea aggressively – very aggressively. The contrast is stark.

There's definitely a lot of bluster about talent attraction, but little in the way of action. The bulk of the money almost always goes into retention, which is a shame. It speaks to the rationale driving policy.

Workforce development is local. Residents and business invest in schools and training programs. The goal is to deepen the available talent pool. Naturally, people are defensive about the taxes they pay or donations made. That your region would need to import brains is a relatively new concept and a political third rail.

The bias against outside talent does have an upside. If someone wants to live in your city, then she or he will find a way to stick. In this respect, the fact that I still live in Denver as opposed to Pittsburgh is my own fault. As immigrants demonstrate every day, enough guts and guile will land you in your dream location.

That's all well and good if you are Portland or Austin. Talent is beating down the door and some will create their own jobs if none are available. No doubt, Pittsburgh and other struggling cities could use these entrepreneurs. Civic boosters hope bloggers will say something nice about their hometown and aid the branding campaign.

More realistically, regions must be more aggressive in courting talent. Failing to do so will push out businesses starving for skilled labor. They will go to where the workers are and will incur significant costs in doing so. Places will have to fight for an increasingly scarce commodity.

Beyond the obvious local orientation to workforce development (plugging the brain drain), talent migration is a policy frontier and a mystery. Lou Glazer (Michigan Future) aptly describes the paradox:

Finally in this season of college graduation a couple of articles that challenge the conventional wisdom that college students leave Michigan because there are no jobs. Both were written during the current downturn. One from the Times on Iowa, which at that point had labor shortages. Employers having trouble filling jobs that require a four-year degree. The other from the Wall Street Journal on Portland, Oregon with the opposite characteristic. High unemployment and yet a magnet for young professionals. The evidence is clear quality of place is an important consideration for graduates as they choose where to live and work after college. If jobs mattered most, college grads would be flocking to Iowa, not Portland. They aren’t!

Jobs matter. I'd bet they matter most if we modeled national talent flows of recent graduates. But that doesn't explain what is going on in Iowa and Oregon. I think economic geographers could reasonably trot out migration as a lagging indicator and eat up some of that error. Eventually, labor will get wise to where the jobs are (or, in Portland's case, where they aren't).

However, there is more to talent migration than rational choice. Graduates who grew up in the same state as their institution of higher education are more likely to stick around than those graduates from out-of-state. You go where you know and muddle along concerning the job. How could a region in Iowa influence this talent to go off the beaten path?

The municipality has suffered from depopulation and an ageing labour force for some time and is currently home to only 2,800 people, the second lowest in Sweden.

Last week a delegation from Sorsele visited the Russian municipality of Apatity on the Kola Peninsula as part of a campaign to attract well-educated families with children.

"Within ten years we need to recruit more than 100 people to various qualified professions: doctors, nurses, teachers, economists, technicians and so on," Tovetjärn said.

Sorsele has chosen to focus part of its campaign on Apatity as it already holds friendship links and aims to attract people used to living in the countryside.

"We have well established links with the area and it is easier to 'sow seeds in fertile land than to break new ground'," he said.

Both Aaron and I have noticed that such initiative is lacking across the United States. I've concluded that places such as Pittsburgh aren't that desperate for people. If they were, then we'd see more innovative approaches like the one in Sweden. Instead, almost every city is content to obsess the natives who leave. The data don't matter. No one seems interested in mapping the migration and thinking outside of the box. They aren't serious about talent.

No comments: