Thursday, September 04, 2008

Diaspora Farming

Domestic brain circulation is hot these days. Regions and states are trying to find the people who left, then help them to boomerang back home. The state government of Ohio released details of an aggressive initiative to spur economic development. You can read some of the coverage of the announcement here. The plan to better manage talent assets is what jumps out at me:

Cultivate top talent by retaining and attracting the best workforce and talent in the world, providing customized training solutions to Ohio companies, and creating a demand-driven workforce and talent system. Two new initiatives we are launching to help us meet this goal are our Ohio Means Home initiative to reintroduce the benefits of living and working in Ohio to former residents and students while encouraging them to return, as well as our Ohio ASAP program, a network to connect businesses with available talented people who have been displaced or are at risk of displacement.

I now appreciate that dealing with the issue of brain drain is a relatively recent development. Two reports (here and here) from the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis published in 2003 make clear that states were flailing around in the dark. A third report looks at policies designed to stop brain drain:

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. ...

... The goal of these and other brain drain programs “is to keep the best and brightest from high school from leaving the state,” according to Tom Mortenson, head of Postsecondary Education Opportunity, a small policy firm in Oskaloosa, Iowa. “In a narrow sense, I understand what states are doing. They are proud of the talent raised there and they don't want to lose it.”

Whether any of these programs is effective at addressing brain drain is largely unknown because very little research has been done on the issue of brain drain itself, to say nothing about the efficacy of policy responses to the problem.

That's $12 million spent based on "very little research." I've taken plenty of shots at attempts to keep graduates from leaving. But the Pennsylvania approach was partly aimed at increasing boomerang migration. How a state or region goes about getting expatriates to return is likely still suffering from a lack of knowledge.

I'm still concerned that there is an irrational attachment to natives, informing bad economic decisions. Shared heritage does harbor a number of opportunities, but attracting any talent (regardless of where she or he was born) should be the primary goal. Boomerang migrants can be a piece of the puzzle, but the same pitfalls one finds in any initiative designed to keep graduates from leaving also exist for the clarion call to return home.

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