Monday, November 01, 2010

Benefiting From Brain Drain

My fellow co-founder of the Pittsburgh Expatriate Network, Alex Pazuchanics, wrote an opinion piece that appeared in the Sunday Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Alex and I agree that the lament over brain drain is unfortunate. Pittsburgh would be better off trying to take advantage of the outmigration patterns:

Our region's growth will come not from trying to keep people in Pittsburgh, but from capitalizing on a highly mobile culture. Pittsburgh should be the physical epicenter of a much larger reality: people moving freely, bringing with them their ideas and experiences, allowing for new developments to occur.

We are heavily invested in retaining the talent produced within the region. We do nothing to derive benefits from the graduates who will surely leave. We comfort ourselves with the fact that few will return, insisting that plugging the brain drain is the only policy worth pursuing. This perspective limits the prospects of economic development.

Both Alex and I are on firm footing with our proposal that Pittsburgh do away with the Border Guard Bob mentality. However, I read an article this morning that suggests the upside of limiting geographic mobility:

"If you can't sell your house, you can't move," said Joseph Seneca, a Rutgers economist who co-authored the report, "Post-Recession America: A New Economic Geography?" ...

... The decline in mobility has the biggest impact on young people, who are historically most likely to move out of state for work, said William Frey, a demographer with the Brookings Institution in Washington.

"They're putting their lives on hold," Frey said. "They're standing still when they really want to be moving."

While lower mobility may be tough on individuals, it can be good for a region — like the Northeast — that would otherwise lose population, Frey said.

"If you're keeping young people, that's a good thing," he said. "It adds a lot of vitality to the community and helps to beef up the workforce."

Talent that would normally leave New Jersey during a downturn is stuck. I disagree with William Frey. Keeping young people as a result of the current circumstances is a bad thing. The inability to relocate for better opportunities is obviously a disadvantage for young people. Not so obvious is the drag on the regional economy. The lack of geographic mobility hurts the community.

Unemployment is higher than it needs to be. Wages are depressed given the glut of workers. Innovation is retarded while inmigration collapses. The town is increasingly isolated, a cul-de-sac of globalization. The local economy is unable to respond to the global restructuring.

If more Sebastian County high school students graduated, a $113 million total improvement in annual income performance could result.

That was one of the findings from "Education, Infrastructure and Regional Income Performance in Arkansas," a study by Tom Fullerton, Enedina Licerio and Phuntsho Wangmo, presented Wednesday at the first Advances in Business Research Symposium hosted by the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith College of Business. ...

... "Brain drain" - the outward migration of a more highly educated work force - may occur in the short term after improvement in educational attainment begins but not in the long term.

"Usually what happens when you improve work force performance, you will potentially have more people moving out of the county," Fullerton said. "As you improve educational attainment, you increase productivity levels. Two other things also happen: Businesses begin to develop in that county and the survival rate of those businesses increases. The people in them are better trained. Outside investors are attracted to those regions as well with improving educational attainment."

Brain drain is a signal that the regional economy is restructuring, for the better. The problem is that we lack the infrastructure to tap into that outmigration and speed up the positive returns from the gains in educational attainment and geographic mobility. The Pittsburgh Expatriate Network will address that oversight and catalyze growth in Southwestern Pennsylvania. The region will be the first in the United States to actively seek a dividend from the export of talent, aligning itself with an international trend (e.g. brain circulation).


Vance said...


Maybe this falls outside your purview and is more appropriate for the Pittsburgh Expatriate Network Blog, but I'm wondering where culture falls into all of this talk of brain drain, expats, etc. I consider Pittsburgh unique in the sense that we have a very tight knit "culture" as far as our unique language, collective Pittsburgh mythology, Polish/Italian/etc. immigrant identity, and so on. I would argue that our diaspora's enthusiasm for Pittsburgh comes from this shared culture. I would also argue that this culture has remained strong due to our provincialism (and maybe our brain drain reactionism). If Pittsburgh were to fully embrace a larger geography of Pittsburgh as a mobile diaspora of people coming and going from Pittsburgh, would Pittsburgh still have the "Pittsburgh culture." And, if not, would the new culture borne of this diaspora identity be worth identifying with? In short, by embracing development through free movement, do we lose what makes Pittsburgh Pittsburgh? And, if so, would there be an enthusiastic diaspora to engage?

Jim Russell said...


I've thought a lot about whether or not Pittsburgh's diaspora is uniquely strong. I think it is. Would embracing an economic development paradigm of improving geographic mobility threaten that advantage? I doubt it. Pittsburgh-ness is at its strongest among expatriates.

Furthermore, outsiders (i.e. immigrants and domestic migrants) made the regional culture unique. Lots of people either coming or going has defined Pittsburgh. Pittsburgh is geographic mobility.

The parochial "charm" runs deep in the regional landscape. I don't see geographic mobility as a threat. However, I appreciate how some would view it that way. If Pittsburgh is already good enough, then why bother?

Vance said...

My previous question was based somewhat in experiences I've had. I grew up in Pittsburgh, left for ten years, and am now back. While I was away, I could quickly bond closely with other lifelong burghers -- there was a commonality of attitude and worldview borne of the Pittsburgh experience. But I couldn't really relate to people who identified with Pittsburgh but only spent a short time there (i.e. went to school or worked there before moving on). The barrier I ran into with these people was we could relate through such quintessential Pittsburgh experiences as Primanti's, Steelers, etc., but they weren't Pittsburghers -- they didn't have that Pittsburgh attitude/worldview -- they had just lived there.

Maybe my story is unique, but from talking to others I think not. If we assumed the above to be true for discussion's sake I would again posit that more mobility may eliminate that unique "Pittsburghness" and destroy the foundation of shared enthusiasm that would engage a diaspora. It's kind of a catch-22.

Anonymous said...

How about a subset within the Expat network website for those of us who consider themselves from Pgh, left, and came back. Might be interesting number to track? We are technically not an Expat or Diasporan any longer I guess, but we were at one point. I registered for the site, but it really shows me as a resident only, even though I have fairly recently moved back after 13 years away.

Anonymous said...

And of course educational attainment is only the most visible measure of talent. I'd have to search for the source, but I believe I read in a Brookings report that for every 1 manufacturing job lost, 2 people leave the region - taking with them a bundle of skills and productive capacities. Outmigration of skilled labor is another indication that there is opportunity to take advantage of a mobile body of people that is sometimes overlooked.


Jim Russell said...

How about a subset within the Expat network website for those of us who consider themselves from Pgh, left, and came back.

That's a great idea. We may or may not do that within the context of PEN. Personally, I fully intend to network expats who have returned. It is actually a strong economic development strategy I've seen work in other places (e.g. Scranton).

I'll talk to the other co-founders about adding a separate category for those who have returned.