Friday, September 19, 2008

Fickle Geography of Talent

There is no insurance that Alberta's talent grab will solve the labor shortage. The best and brightest also tend to be the most geographically mobile. What Alberta works so hard to secure could move onward to spiky Toronto and the province of Ontario:

In the global and national competition to lure academic superstars, Ontario has gone to Alberta to poach a world-renowned neonatologist.

The Ontario government will announce today that Shoo Lee, who pioneered the Canadian Neonatal Network and has been working on an international one, will be relocating from the oil-rich province to become pediatrician-in-chief at Toronto's Mount Sinai Hospital and head of the neonatology division at the University of Toronto.

The appointments are significant not only because of Dr. Lee's immense talents, but it is further proof that Canada has succeeded in reversing the brain drain and provinces are now scouring each other's backyards for top researchers.

Dr. Lee, who will move with his team of researchers in the new year, said going east was not a difficult decision.

"Alberta, because of all the oil money, certainly was able to make very attractive packages for people to go there - and they're still successful at it. ... But I think the reality is the depth of capacity and the infrastructure that has been built in Ontario over the years still exceeds anything anywhere else in the country," he said in a telephone interview yesterday from Argentina, where he was speaking at a neonatal conference.

In recent years, Alberta's energy boom has drawn some top names, including, more recently, Jack Mintz, former head of the C.D. Howe Institute who left his post at the University of Toronto for the University of Calgary. But Ontario, and, in particular, Toronto, with its cluster of research institutes, has lured the likes of Tom Hudson, a prominent geneticist, from Montreal, and stem-cell biologist Gordon Keller, who, just months before he arrived in 2007, was named by New York Magazine as one of the scientists New York could not afford to lose.

Gains in frontier boomtowns may be ephemeral as the gravity of alpha world cities is reinforced. However, Calgary shouldn't try to be the next Toronto. Nor should Toronto try to out-New York the Big Apple. The Urbanophile wrote an intriguing post about the niche of Indianapolis in the war for talent. The article of provocation describes the regional comparative advantage for Indianapolis, looking beyond the over-hyped talent pool of the Creative Class:

Cities have not been so smart, [Drew Klacik (a senior policy analyst at the Center for Urban Policy and the Environment, which is part of the Indiana University School of Public and Environmental Affairs in Indianapolis)] said, when they tried to chase the “creative class” [Richard] Florida identified. Florida, who is now a professor at the University of Toronto, suggested that “creative” people gravitated to cities with hip, bohemian neighborhoods that were tolerant and diverse.

So groups in several cities, including Indianapolis, cited Florida’s “creative class” theory in pushing for an ordinance against discrimination against gays, or making investments in cultural neighborhoods or encouraging the opening of more coffee shops and nightspots.

In a summary of his research, Klacik wrote, “… many cities and regions have repeated history and entered into a competition for the creative class, whomever they may be, encouraging the development of coffee shops and other ‘creative class amenities’ in much the same way they previously competed for industries using tax abatements and other incentives.”

Since the late 1990s, cities have begun to focus tax incentives on industries in which they already have strengths—such as the life sciences or advanced manufacturing—while letting other opportunities go. Klacik hopes that by identifying human clusters, cities can make a similar advance in their efforts to woo talented people.

“If we really want to support life sciences, how do we offer more of the amenities that tend to attract those kinds of people?” Klacik asked rhetorically. He hopes his research can provide an answer.

For me, Klacik's research makes clear the benefit of Rust Belt collaboration. When Alberta competes with Toronto over the same economic cluster and therefore the same pool of talent, Canada's ability to compete globally is hurt. Likewise, the Industrial Heartland doesn't seem to realize that much of the mega-regional talent circulates between shrinking cities:

Mostly, [Indiana residents] lose [electronics] jobs to other states like Michigan, Illinois, Tennessee and even Connecticut! Well over half the jobs lost go to other rust-belt states, many with higher tax/living/labor costs than our own. They're not leaving for the mountains of Colorado or even for the sun and palm trees of California. The No. 1 state destination for Indiana electronics companies is Ohio.
The Rust Belt Chic value proposition will catch on, but how does an outsider disquinish between opportunity in Erie, PA and Akron, OH? Cheap housing is a dime-a-dozen in this part of the country. The assets that boosters celebrate read the same, regardless of city. To the untrained eye (perhaps even to the trained eye) there isn't much geographic diversity and I think that is holding the mega-region back.

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