Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Regional Talent Management: Austin Versus Pittsburgh

In part, the talent migration from Pittsburgh to Austin inspired Richard Florida's Creative Class enterprise:

As I walked across the campus of Pittsburgh's Carnegie Mellon University one delightful spring day, I came upon a table filled with young people chatting and enjoying the spectacular weather. Several had identical blue T-shirts with "Trilogy@CMU" written across them---Trilogy being an Austin, Texas-based software company with a reputation for recruiting our top students. I walked over to the table. "Are you guys here to recruit?" I asked. "No, absolutely not," they replied adamantly. "We're not recruiters. We're just hangin' out, playing a little Frisbee with our friends." How interesting, I thought. They've come to campus on a workday, all the way from Austin, just to hang out with some new friends.

I noticed one member of the group sitting slouched over on the grass, dressed in a tank top. This young man had spiked multi-colored hair, full-body tattoos, and multiple piercings in his ears. An obvious slacker, I thought, probably in a band. "So what is your story?" I asked. "Hey man, I just signed on with these guys." In fact, as I would later learn, he was a gifted student who had inked the highest-paying deal of any graduating student in the history of his department, right at that table on the grass, with the recruiters who do not "recruit."

What a change from my own college days, just a little more than 20 years ago, when students would put on their dressiest clothes and carefully hide any counterculture tendencies to prove that they could fit in with the company. Today, apparently, it's the company trying to fit in with the students. In fact, Trilogy had wined and dined him over margarita parties in Pittsburgh and flown him to Austin for private parties in hip nightspots and aboard company boats. When I called the people who had recruited him to ask why, they answered, "That's easy. We wanted him because he's a rock star."

That anecdote is almost a decade in the past. It defines the workforce development strategy for both cities. Pittsburgh strives to retain local talent while Austin does whatever it can to attract brains. Both cities are very good at what they set out to do. Pittsburgh's approach is superior.

Talent drives economic competitiveness. Austin has no problem attracting talent from other U.S. regions, and, increasingly, from around the world. We should be proud of our strong economy and ability to attract skilled workers, but over-reliance on imported talent is not a viable long-term strategy. We can’t survive on growth forever. We will eventually need to come to terms with the fact that the talent pipeline starts here with existing residents, and we must do a better job equipping people with the education and skills they need to succeed, and keep us competitive.

In other words, Austin needs to be a lot more like Pittsburgh. That means better educating the regional workforce and then retaining those graduates. Both cities have a glut of talent for different reasons. Pittsburgh is not dependent on the inmigration pipeline. Austin is. Other parts of the Sun Belt prove that betting on the people continuing to move there is foolish. Recently, Silicon Valley expressed a similar concern.

Pittsburgh can afford to gaze at its navel while mulling over workforce development. That's exactly the message communicated by LANXESS CEO and chair of the Allegheny Conference Workplace Committee Randy Dearth during a recent interview with OnQ. He's telling talent to stay put and find the opportunities that exist in the region. There is no urgency to attract workers. The main issue is better matching job seekers with available openings. The local demand for labor doesn't look to outstrip the supply any time soon.

That's good news for companies starving for talent. It is places such as Pittsburgh that can guarantee a reliable supply of trained workers. Austin is trying to stay out in front of this trend, hoping to offer both substantial inmigration and organic talent to companies expecting to grow. That's easier said than done. Of course, Austin likely has time to engineer the turnaround. People are still flocking to Texas for a good reason, jobs.

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