Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Talent Migration Models

Over the last few weeks, I've been reading research on return migration. I didn't expect to discover so many different theoretical models in play. Some of the debates are the garden variety battle of the paradigms. Consider the matter unsettled. That opens the door for the likes of the Martin Prosperity Institute at the University of Toronto:

While it is generally agreed upon that talent is a key driver of economic growth, there is a fierce debate surrounding the optimal set of factors that help to attract and retain individuals with high levels of human capital (‘talent’) and mobility. One camp argues that good quality jobs must be present before talent will migrate while another camp argues that talented individuals are attracted to locations that offer a rich mix of amenities such as theatre, musical venues, restaurants, and other opportunities for recreation. In reality, however, the nature of work and what constitutes a ‘job’ is changing and preferences for work are differentiated by occupation, gender, ethnicity, life cycle, and past experience. As a result, understanding the conditions that attract and ultimately retain talent requires a multi-stage analysis. To move beyond the aforementioned jobs vs. amenities binary, Martin Prosperity Institute researchers Brian Hracs and Kevin Stolarick have developed a conceptual model that includes different stages and allows for the expectations and preferences of individuals to evolve over time while taking into account the draw of both jobs and amenities.

The above passage is rife with misconceptions. The suggested model will result in poor policy decisions. I have to wonder if these researchers even bothered to review the literature. But that's not to say that the work is worthless.

The best model is the one that explains the most migration. The bulk of relocations are short distance moves. Proximity is an important variable. Lumping together the jobs vs. amenities binary still misses a lot of migration. There is a ton of error in that model.

I've argued that knowledge of place is a robust way to model relocation decisions: You go where you know. Hracs and Stolarick can speak to pioneer migrations: Far away and terra incognita. Few moves fit into that category.

What really strikes me is the enormous success of college towns. When I wrote Rise you could see the rise of Austin, Texas. Consider the South by Southwest festival, what it is was then and what it is now. A couple of years later we could see in our data the rise of Boulder, Colorado and it's now one of the leading places for startups. The place at the top of our metrics now is Ann Arbor, Michigan. Here's a city that's in the shadow of Detroit, which many people are saying is collapsing and decaying. It's a large college town that has everything in common with Palo Alto, or Boulder, or Austin. We can add to the college town list Ithaca, New York or Madison, Wisconsin.

I emphasized the part about Ann Arbor. I'll remind you of that place's talent dilemma. In that blog post I compare Madison to Ann Arbor, referencing an article that has heavily influenced my thinking:

And despite Ann Arbor's educated work force, employers here find Michigan's reputation as a failing manufacturing economy can deter potential hires from moving to the state.

At HandyLab, an Ann Arbor firm that makes a DNA-analysis device, Chief Executive Jeffrey Williams says he has had a hard time finding Ph.D.-level workers with highly specialized skills. His company, which has doubled to roughly 60 employees in the past year, has 10 job openings.

"It's definitely gotten much harder with all the stigma around Detroit," he says. "Somebody tries to pigeonhole us as Detroit, we say, 'No, it's Ann Arbor, it's a completely different environment.' "

According to Richard Florida, Ann Arbor should be a talent magnet. It isn't. My model can explain why. The Martin Prosperity Institute model cannot. Boil it down to proximity. Madison touts nearby Chicago. Ann Arbor frets about Detroit's bad reputation. What you'll find when you disaggregate the Michigan population story:

As a region, West Michigan showed stronger population growth between 2000 and 2010 than most other parts of Michigan, which lost population overall, according to U.S. Census figures released Tuesday.

Ottawa County grew the fastest among the state’s 10 most populous counties, adding 25,487 residents in the past decade.

The Lakeshore county’s population grew by 11 percent, fueled by strong growth in its suburban communities of Holland Township, Georgetown Township, Grand Haven Township and Allendale Township.

Welcome to the Michigan part of Chicagoland, a world away from Detroit.


Andy said...

I think this post just earned itself a follow up/response on my own blog... stay tuned.

I think you're on the right track about Ann Arbor. The city is totally in its own bubble in Michigan. I find while a large proportion of the staff at UM commute or are from metro Detroit, most of the faculty and students (especially grad students) are from out of state, and have virtually no experience with or interest in Detroit. It might as well be Mars to them. It's definitely getting better, as the university is starting to realize it has a big stake in Detroit (ex:, and cooperation between Wayne & Washtenaw Counties (ex: the aerotropolis) has been increasing. I started my blog partly as an effort to help bridge that gap.

I don't get your point on Ottawa County, though. Have you been to Holland? It's extremely conservative, extremely white, wealthy and for the most part rural. (Don't get me wrong, it's totally beautiful as well.) My guess (I haven't bothered to check the census numbers yet) is that a lot of the growth has come from Hispanic agricultural workers and their rapidly growing families. In no way is it urban, and it is starting from a much smaller population base, so it doesn't need much of an influx to register big percentage gains. Livingston County, about 15 minutes north of Ann Arbor, has a similar story. "The Michigan part of Chicagoland"? I am not seeing it. And certainly it is attracting an entirely different demographic than Ann Arbor.

2000-2010 was an exceptionally horrendous decade for Southeast Michigan; in that light it is not surprising that Ann Arbor suffered too. I will be surprised if the 2010s do not see it erase most of the gap with, say, Madison.

Jim Russell said...


Thanks for the thoughtful comment. I'll try to explain my remarks about Ottawa County.

First, my main mission in blogging is to archive information and knowledge that will help me understand the relationship between Rust Belt cities and talent migration. Seemingly cryptic prose is usually a mark for me that will cue me to circle back and click on the link.

Second, I want to catalyze conversations with other bloggers like you. I think that's where the valuable knowledge production happens.

Chicagoland is a signifier of the proximity argument. Being close to Chicago is a boon to economic development. That's the main Southwestern Michigan advantage. You find something similar going on in Milwaukee. I know from second-hand experience that the University of Wisconsin sells its proximity to Chicago to prospective hires.

Richard Longworth brought the Michigan divide between Chicago and Detroit to my attention. I'm intimately familiar with the NYC sphere of influence, which you see strongly in NE PA. Check out what is going on in Reading, Scranton, Allentown, and Bethlehem.

Beyond the gravity of Chicago to the East and the gravity of NYC to the West is the no man's land of the Rust Belt. I think Aaron Renn refers to it as mating dinosaurs.

Detroit, Cleveland, and Pittsburgh are in the middle of an economic desert. That's tough on a bright spot such as Ann Arbor. Morgantown is stuck with Pittsburgh. Columbus has to compete with a bunch of other Ohio cities for state love. But Madison can piggyback on Chicago. Boulder has Denver.

I'm interested in redevelopment success stories that don't benefit from the proximity advantage. To the extent that Ann Arbor breaks free of Detroit's gravity bears watching.