Monday, June 07, 2010

Megaregional Brain Drain

Concerning brain drain, the apple rarely falls far from the tree. A great deal of Rust Belt talent churns within the megaregion. The story that we read and hear laments how everyone is seeking more sunshine. There is a lot of truth to that hype, though not in the way most people expect. The dominant patterns of talent migration inform a distinct megaregional identity.

The Midwest, largely synonymous with the Rust Belt, is best defined in terms of the academic conference the Big 10. The news of a major realignment of college athletics is stoking the fires of nostalgia:

There are few things that create a sense of common cause in this part of the country. From Manhattan or Malibu, it may look like an unvarying mass of stolid, overall-wearing meatloaf eaters, but underneath our placid exterior, deep differences abound.

The inhabitants of Madison, Wis., don't vote like the citizens of Terra Haute, Ind. The accents in northern Minnesota bear no resemblance to those heard in southern Illinois. Parts of Michigan get 20 feet of snow in a typical winter, while Cincinnati is lucky to get two.

You will not find many parents in Council Bluffs, Iowa, sending their children to receive a higher education in Columbus, Ohio. But on a fall afternoon, a lot of them can tell you whether Ohio State won or lost.

The above is as good delineation of the Midwest as any. Pennsylvania was late to the party and the state doesn't quite fit with the others. A better megaregional construct is the economic gravity of Chicago. Like it or not, it's the center of the Big 10 universe as far as graduates are concerned. I doubt the same could be said for schools in the Pac 10, Big 12, SEC, ACC, or even the Big East. The Rose Bowl is Los Angeles against Chicago. One could easily name the dominant city for every major conference. Only the Big 10 claims Chicago.

What does that have to do with brain drain and talent migration? Everything. (Via Chris Briem @ Null Space) Introducing megaregional talent retention:

Keeping college grads

The city also needs to be attractive to Chicago's college students, who tend to leave the Midwest.

"Chicago has a unique and a wonderful opportunity to be a destination for people coming out of our great colleges and universities throughout the region," she said.

It was a destination for her. The native of Washington, Pa., about 35 miles south of Pittsburgh, and a graduate of Duke University, credits her older sister, former Kraft Foods CEO Betsy Holden, with introducing her to Chicago. Holden was in graduate school at Northwestern, and DeHaas found herself impressed with Chicago's business vibrancy.

Ignore the first sentence in the passage. The journalist is confusing local retention with megaregional attraction. Chicago is a magnet for Big 10 brains. Bigger than Atlanta. Bigger than Los Angeles. Bigger than Dallas or Houston. Bigger than New York. The drain supposedly handicapping economic development in Iowa doesn't lead to the Sun Belt.

Also notice the network migration. Thanks to a trusted family member, Chicago was on the radar. It isn't a random destination. Attracting talent is far from a needle in a haystack.

Which again brings us back to Jim R's Burgh Diaspora blog which is indeed all about tracking the neogeography of talent and thinking differently about what it means for regions, especially but not limited to, ours. Jim's blog has what I don't mean dimimutively a cult following across the nation if not farther as best I can tell. As Aaron alludes and others know it is about rethinking how we understand talent in the economy. In a lot of ways what he is talking about is the opposite of virtually all we actually implement here. It is about making connections to the Pittsburgh diasporan now heading Chicago's meta Chamber of Commerce. It would be the antithesis of things like Project 84 which I myself have poked at in the past. Project 84 being our version of talent policy, whereby we were going to kidnap (my words not theirs) young talent and whisk them to Pittsburgh.. wine and dine them and try and convince them Pittsburgh was a great place. I tell that story and people just don't believe me.

The challenge for John Austin and Richard Longworth is to figure out how to catalyze economic development for the towns and cities that send their brains to Chicago. Forget the other global urban adventures outside of the Midwest. Those places distract us from the opportunity right in front of us. Forget the graduates from the colleges and universities of Chicago. The inmigrants more than make up for the loss. That said, other Rust Belt cities should make hay out of Chicago's brain drain problem.

That one way to think about the talent migration pattern. For the other, I head to Big 12 country:

[Traci Hancock (executive director of Innovation Accelerator)], who was born and raised in Omaha and holds a masters in Medieval History from Cambridge University, pointed out she is “passionate” about the organization, which receives some federal funding, but also works in the private sector. The group has hired similarly talented individuals to address grant recipients’ needs and grow innovation in the Omaha area.

“People always complain about brain drain,” Hancock said. “One thing people need to recognize is we need to encourage people to go and bring back new ideas from other places. We can’t live in a bubble. Omaha is a great place. Omaha is a community. Stepping away and returning with new experiences will improve the community.”

Regions think of talent leaving as a policy failure. We throw a lot of money at increasing educational attainment and then spend more trying to torpedo a success story. I feel like I'm stuck in a Gogol novel. If an athlete or actor moves away and makes it big, the town doesn't turn its back on her. It erects a statue, emblematic of civic pride. As for all the other odysseys, the town is deeply ashamed. What are we doing wrong?

We hope Traci Hancock will come back home. We trot out one boondoggle after another to make sure she doesn't go to Cambridge. I would think that the misappropriation of funds is obvious. It isn't. That's the Pittsburgh Talent Failure.

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