Monday, June 14, 2010

Milwaukee Desperately Seeking Talent Dividend

Talent is a hot topic. Today, Aaron Renn takes another look at talent attraction. Regions should actively court both business and human capital. The latter is new to the economic development policy discussion. There is growing interest in educational attainment data as well as tracking talent migration. Milwaukee is sizing up its competition and looking for ways to get better:

Michael Lovell thinks it's possible, and he's in good position to judge. He grew up in western Pennsylvania and until two years ago was associate dean for research at the University of Pittsburgh's engineering school. Now he's dean of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee's College of Engineering and Applied Science, where he's helping push for a research center and technology-based business park in Wauwatosa.

"I often say that Milwaukee is today where Pittsburgh was about 10 years ago," Lovell said. ...

... It's not that the city isn't adding college graduates. That's happening almost everywhere. Where less than 15% of Milwaukee adults held degrees in 1990, just over 20% did in 2006-'08 - a gain of 5.5 percentage points.

But Atlanta and Seattle tacked on 16 points during the same period. Portland, Ore., added nearly 14. Minneapolis added 12. Boston and Charlotte, about 11.

Pittsburgh - which doesn't quite make the 50-largest-cities list - jumped 12.3 points, more than twice Milwaukee's gain.

The odd duck in that cohort is Pittsburgh. The darlings of educational attainment are cities that attract a lot of talent. That's not how Pittsburgh does it (however, that's beginning to change). Few regions (perhaps none) can match Pittsburgh's ability to produce talent.

In terms of talent production, the Rust Belt is king. That's the point Bruce Katz is evangelizing. That fact is beginning to pay dividends in places such as Pittsburgh (Skilled Anchors). Critics tend to misunderstand this positive indicator. Remarks about a still declining population are irrelevant, a relic of the industrial era. Regardless, the demographics are slow to change.

Watching Pittsburgh engineer a reversal of fortune is like reversing redirecting a supertanker. The pilot starts the turn long before actually making it. The naysayers keep remarking that the boat is going the wrong way. Once the new course is achieved, the cynical claim it is all smoke and mirrors.

Successful urban transformation seems rapid because most people weren't paying attention or clung to outdated perceptions. We know that migration is a lagging indicator. Relocation decisions aren't as dynamic as Richard Florida makes them out to be. Michigan's Cool Cities initiative might work if we gave it enough time. It might already be working, but we too often look at the wrong numbers.

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