Monday, January 07, 2013

Brain Drain Boondoggles: Michigan Future

The pinnacle of brain drain hysteria is concentrated in three states: Michigan, Indiana, and Ohio. Every state complains about the outmigration of native sons and daughters. It's a product of our xenophobic tendencies. Politicians and policy advocates make a lot of hay exploiting these fears. In Michigan, Indiana, and Ohio, the annual cycle of brain drain boondoggles is alarming. The appetite for silver bullet retention efforts is insatiable. The latest rhetoric from Michigan:

Internships have been described as everything from slave labor to a gateway to success. For president of Michigan Future Inc. Lou Glazer, internships are a vital piece to Michigan’s economic success. ...

... Glazer’s Ann Arbor-based think tank, as well as many others across the state, view Michigan’s “brain drain” exodus of recent college graduates as something that can be combatted with the right combination of job opportunities and a cultural shift.

“Young people want to go where there’s good quality of place and where other young talent is concentrating. That’s what Michigan is having problems with and why so many of our talent young people go to Chicago.”

Combating brain drain undermines economic development. Any initiative that would decrease geographic mobility is anti-talent. An extreme example of Glazer's wrongheadedness is China's hukou system:

China has long forbidden such workers from putting down roots under a system of household registration, known as the hukou, developed to keep the rural poor from swamping the cities. Without a city hukou, migrant workers are forbidden from tapping local social benefits and have difficulty sending their children to local schools—with the result that many leave their offspring in the care of grandparents back home.

Economists and a rising number of Chinese policy makers say the hukou system gets in the way of turning migrant workers into a more stable, productive work force that could also further China's goal of rebalancing its economy toward more consumer-driven growth. The hukou system contributes to a shortage of workers in cities as it encourages migrants to return to the village when it comes time to raise a family.

Hukou effectively clamps down on brain drain. More people remain in rural areas. Return migration is all but guaranteed. Instead of hukou, Glazer promotes internships. The desired result is the same.

The policy goal of talent retention is perverse, akin to encouraging someone to skip college. It's good for local businesses because the glut of talent suppresses wages and makes headhunting less expensive. Community interests trump individual ones. The bigger picture is a less vibrant national and global economy. We all lose so Ann Arbor might gain.

A better internship program would focus on attracting graduates from out-of-state schools. A prototype is Bulldogs in the Bluegrass, which brings Yale college students to Louisville, Kentucky. The very act of migration is economic development. Michigan would benefit more if it focused on talent attraction in lieu of retention. More people would realize that Ann Arbor is a great place to live and work, instead of the geographic stereotype of ruin porn Detroit. People develop, not places.

1 comment:

Allen said...

Good points. Another I'd consider adding is that retaining those young people may be a losing proposition. When I was young I wanted to go to school most anyplace except home. The same with finding a job. It was full of places I'd get to live and do new things. Trying to retain young talent that's already in that mindset may very well make matters even worse.