Sunday, August 08, 2010

Brain Drain Policy History

Recently, someone working on a policy document for Pittsburgh asked me a few questions about the region's talent management issues. Our exchange got me thinking about the history of policies designed to deal with brain drain. Lucky for me, April Hirsh pass along two link references that provide just such a background.

For decades there have been numerous reports on “brain drain” or migration of college educated youth from second and third world nations to US universities,(Footnote #1) corporations, and citizenship. Well-educated immigrants have been recognized as a dynamic element driving the US economy. Articles in academic and mainstream media have increasingly focused on this topic. The international context shows us that “drain” can be bidirectional, uneven, varying over time, reversible, and influenced by government policy and business environment.

In the last decade, “brain drain” has been applied to explain the movement of college educated US youth to a few “cool cities.” This shift has catalyzed the concern of legislators, university officials, policy-makers, and economic development professionals. Two beliefs unite this body of work: that having a sizable pool of talented college graduates is central to the economic vitality of a region,(Footnote #2) and that graduates from throughout the nation are moving to relatively few urban centers mostly on the coasts. The implication of this trend is that a vast area is left behind, unable to participate in the “new economy” because it lacks sufficient entrepreneurial and technical talent.

1 The British Royal Society first coined the expression “brain drain” to describe the outflow of scientists and technologists to the United States and Canada in the 1950s and early 1960s. OECD Observer. 5/7/02.

2 The Southern Technology Council (1998) quoted a study by Bank Boston measuring the relationship between university science grads and entrepreneurship. They noted that Massachusetts Institute of Technology graduates had founded 4,000 firms, employed over 1.1 million people, and generated $232 Billion of world sales by 1994—taken together constituting the 24th largest economy in the world.

The shift from international talent migration to domestic talent migration is relatively recent, during the late 1990s. The Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland pinpoints the beginning of Ohio's anxiety about the geographic mobility of college graduates:

When data from the 2001 Baccalaureate and Beyond survey showed that 35 percent of the students receiving a college degree from Ohio institutions left the state, the figure was touted as cause for concern. Ohio was well below the national average, ranking 35th among states in retaining students educated by its colleges and universities. Media and state government officials alike lamented the “brain drain” that resulted in the loss of nearly 17,000 graduates from Ohio schools in 2001. The headlines across the state ranged from statements of perceived facts, such as “Cincinnati Suffers Brain Drain” (Cincinnati Post, November 5, 2003) and “Ohio Ranked 35th in College Grads” (Cincinnati Post, June 2, 2002), to the dramatic: “Losing Our Minds: Grads with Advanced Degrees are Flowing out of Ohio”(The Plain Dealer, February 23, 2003) and “Ohio Loses Young, Educated in Droves” (The Plain Dealer, November 4, 2003).

All the ink spilled on the issue was both unwarranted and full of misinformation. Given the hysteria, no surprise that policies designed to stop the brain drain cropped up in Ohio and other states. In 2003, the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis decided to take a closer look at the perceived problem. I get a kick out of the description of one Pennsylvania initiative:

Pennsylvania, for example, is spending $12 million on an initiative called "Stay Invent the Future" that's aimed at reversing outward migration of college-educated folks believed to be upwards of 10,000 annually. Part of the money went to a nationwide TV ad campaign to woo workers back home that featured a joe-six-pack "fairy job mother" wearing a tutu, wings and construction boots.

$12 million for an untested (and ultimately ineffective) idea! If you dig deeper into the Ohio story, then you'll find that the politicians and public didn't understand what was going on in the world of talent migration. They still don't. The money wasted on various retention and attraction schemes must be well into the billions of dollars.

The important take-away is that we still have a lot to learn about talent migration. We've only tried a few approaches and the policy history, here in the United States, is just a decade old. The good news is that international economic development wonks have advanced the conversation considerably over the same period of time. We needn't reinvent the wheel or stumble around in the dark. But we should stop with the sensational headlines.

No comments: