Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Facilitating Brain Drain

I'm not crazy. Helping graduates leave your region is a sound talent management strategy. At least, I've finally found someone putting this idea into action:

Brain Drain. Though it may work as a convenient rhyme, the phrase falls short in conveying the seriousness of a problem afflicting small towns everywhere: the loss of bright college graduates who choose to settle in larger metropolitan areas rather than return to the small towns they once called home.

But Tennessee businessman and philanthropist Scott Niswonger thinks he can change that—first in Greeneville, the town where he lives, and then, perhaps, in others like it—with a plan that at least one national economic development consultant calls the most progressive of its kind. Coincidentally, even the plan has been given a neat, catchy rhyme—it's based on an economic model that Niswonger calls "Learn, Earn and Return." The idea, as boiled down in the project's promotional materials, is fairly simple—"Invest in your young people. Give them the tools they need to succeed anywhere in the country and world. And finally, convince them to come home and give back."

Come to think of it, that a town or small city would put the above policy into practice makes sense. Graduates will need to go to the big city in order to take full advantage of opportunity. From the perspective of the individual (even family), leaving is often necessary.

Mr. Niswonger would seem to embrace a market approach, identifying the economic incentives driving brain drain. Nativism is, unfortunately, the usual source of policies designed to address the out-migration of talent. At odds, as I've endeavored to detail on many occasions, are the interests of graduates and the host community. Boomerang migration can work, but it does need a little prodding and can align all the relevant stakeholders.

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