Tuesday, July 13, 2010

War For Talent: Sioux Falls

American rural communities may have no future, but the same isn't true for the host rural states. Sioux Falls (South Dakota) is booming. The region is also anticipating a talent shortage and is exploring strategies to keep that inmigration pipeline flowing:

My family is a small window on a big challenge for Sioux Falls as we launch an ambitious strategy for future growth. How can we persuade talented young adults from bigger cities - Minneapolis, Omaha, Kansas City and Des Moines - to move here to start new businesses, prepare to lead existing ones and accelerate the process of moving Sioux Falls into the first rank of destination cities in the Midwest?

Future Sioux Falls, an economic development project supported by a private-public partnership, unveiled a [smart, five-year blueprint for the city] in April. The report is built around five important goals - from strengthening education and stimulating innovation, to promoting tourism and marketing - and most of us would be hard-pressed to quibble with them.

But the soul of the plan, in my view, lies in the acknowledgement that much of Sioux Falls' astounding growth in recent decades has come at the expense of countless small towns in the region - and that now, to leverage quality growth and sharpen our competitive edge in the scramble for strong companies with good jobs, we must look elsewhere for "talent" - the report's inoffensive appellation for smart, educated and skilled young adults.

Part of the Sioux Falls talentshed is Southwestern Iowa, a region hard-hit with population decline. The War for Talent is a zero-sum game. The gains in Sioux Falls come at the expense of Southwestern Iowa. Mike Knutson of Reimagine Rural picks up on the tension:

What caught my attention, however, was Beck’s acknowledgement that Sioux Falls will need to find its next generation of talent in cities such as Minneapolis and Omaha in the future. Historically Sioux Falls’ growth has been fueled by talent from rural communities across South Dakota, Iowa, and Minnesota. Beck cites Hollowing out the Middle: The Rural Brain Drain and What it Means for America, a book dear to my heart, to note that those rural communities have nothing more to give.

I've read the book. One of the haunting questions I have about the policy narratives explored concerns an actual account of where these outmigrants end up residing. The geography of the crisis is the entire Heartland, as if the economic vitality of Iowa and other states were at stake. As the Sioux Falls story details, the authors of "Hollowing Out the Middle" offer a deceptive account of the brain drain occurring in our nation's midsection. Pointing out that Iowa cities are largely responsible for shrinking Iowa's rural towns isn't a sexy sell. Like the rest of the country, the Heartland is urbanizing. It isn't exactly groundbreaking analysis.

The entire megaregion is fishing in the same talent pool. The competition for Sioux Falls are the other cities that have helped to drain the rural hinterlands of people. One region will benefit at the expense of another. This is the same problem that vexes Richard Longworth in his book, "Caught in the Middle".

The linkage of the prosperity of one community to that of another is missing. Sioux Falls is in a fierce battle with its urban neighbors, not the megalopolis on either coast. Not the Sun Belt. Not the BRIC countries. There is no discussion about mutually beneficial economic development, every town and city for itself.

Intended to make available a pool of money to support regional planning and coordinate USDA assistance in rural communities, the Agriculture initiative is potentially a watershed for its thoughtful synthesis on the rural side of ongoing “metropolitan” concerns as regionalism, planning, and program integration.

But it is also intriguing and instructive for its programmatic approach. Complicated “silo-busting” to link, align, or fuse disparate or rigid existing programs is a familiar back-office requirement of any federal effort to regionalize its offerings. Accordingly, USDA has hit on a novel scheme to knit programs and funds together. Cleverly, the agency plans to set-aside and pool about five percent of the funding from approximately 20 existing programs for a total of $135 million and allocate these funds competitively among regional pilot projects tailored to local needs and opportunities. To enhance the effort’s impact the initiative provides additional money for staff to provide technical assistance and support for rural communities developing Regional strategic plans. That way, rural communities will receive useful help as more and more of them realize they are better off working regionally to compete globally, especially by leveraging regional assets and creating win-win partnerships with nearby metropolitan and micropolitan hubs.

I think that's a winning approach. I read about the western Kansas Rural Economic Development Alliance (wKREDA) in the latest issue of Planning. wKREDA might be a good model to research. One way to delineate a functional economic geography is to track talent migration. I'd bet we could rigorously define a variety of talent markets throughout the United States that could function in a regional capacity like wKREDA. It's redefining our economy in terms of how people move.

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