Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Strategic Brain Circulation

Second to only keeping people from leaving in the first place is the hope that the brains will come back home. Australia is expecting a strong boomerang migration as a result of a sagging global economy. I think Pittsburgh could see a similar talent flow, though the itch to repatriate might not be as strong as it is for the internationally wayward. Not leaving talent acquisition to chance, states and regions are beginning to employ some clever strategies to reclaim some of their investment in the egress of human capital:

At next week's Badger Career Expo in Minneapolis, several hundred University of Wisconsin alumni in the Twin Cities area will talk with Wisconsin-based companies bent on luring them home. Meanwhile, University Research Park in Madison has launched a campaign to persuade UW grads in the science and technology worlds to expand, relocate, or start a new company in the state's signature high-tech business park.

These are two examples of creative efforts to reverse what is often called “the brain drain,” a phrase that describes the net loss of college-educated young people in Wisconsin to other states. It's a trend Wisconsin must reverse if it hopes to build a stronger economy.

The Oct. 16 Minneapolis event is a response to a Wisconsin Alumni Association and Competitive Wisconsin, Inc. survey that found 58 percent of the 2,600 UW graduates responding from Chicago, the Twin Cities, New York, San Francisco and Washington, D.C., would consider making career moves to Wisconsin. Most of those grads are Wisconsin natives who want to return home for family or lifestyle reasons. Many are now raising families of their own, and they view Wisconsin as a place with strong schools and a sense of community that's sometimes lacking elsewhere.

I've been impressed with the work of Tom Still, the president of the Wisconsin Technology Council, has done to make his state more competitive in the knowledge economy. He's one to watch in the arena of workforce development and talent management. But I think the program designed to bring college graduates back home could be better targeted.

One approach is to cultivate a workforce well prepared to telecommute and work from home. The kind of skills that Jon Udell promotes would create a highly mobile employee who could afford to seek the benefits that a state such as Wisconsin can provide. I see Cleveburgh as a global center for this kind talent cultivation given the presence of strong distance-trust innovation. A crazy vision I'm developing is starting a distance-trust research center in Youngstown, but that idea isn't even half-baked as of yet. The premise is using novel social media technologies to grow social capital over long distances.

The most compelling stories of boomerang migrations involve entrepreneurship:

For many, returning home offers a way to balance family and career and give their children a better environment to grow up in, Reisinger said.

Those who began their career in a metropolitan area often seek a less hectic environment to raise their families, and going back to their hometown is often identified as an ideal choice, he said.

"They remember their childhood in that place," Reisinger said.

The Dallas suburbs where Turney and her family lived never seemed like home. After 10 years in the same location, Turney said, they still didn't have a sense of ties to the community.

In 2004, the family, including three young children, moved back to the Binghamton area with Turney telecommuting for Sabre.

The move home meant being with family, many of whom stayed in the area, including 15 nieces and nephews under age 10, Turney said.

"I'm one of eight kids, and most of them are here," she said.

In 2006, Turney said she and her husband, Scott, found a Town of Binghamton orchard that was for sale.

"Everybody wanted to make it a housing development," Turney said.

The idea of working for a business that was close to nature made sense, she said, and presented a good opportunity for the family to work together. The couple worked at the business -- Fiato's Orchard & Market -- for one season to make sure it was a good fit and bought it earlier this year, Turney said.

Turney's previous work experience made the transition to small-business owner fairly easy, as she already knew how to budget cash flow and manage employees. While it's a far cry from the business suits, corner offices and business lunches she had become accustomed to, being home has significant benefits, including the approval of her children and husband, Turney said.

"It's a completely different environment," Turney said. "It's so different from being in the corporate world. It's a whole different focus. It's about meeting people."

The move home for Mavian was spurred by the birth of her son Max. The troubles associated with having a young child in the city, especially after Max started kindergarten, were enough to make her and her husband, Jean Baptiste, consider a move, Mavian said.

Letting Max outside to play with neighborhood children just isn't done in New York City, and nearly everything -- including play dates -- are made by appointment, she said.

"I love New York, but it's just different when you have a baby in the equation," she said. "By the time Max was 5, we lived through 9/11, the blackout and the transit strike."

With family still in Greater Binghamton and regular trips home for the holidays, the couple began considering a change of location and a foray into entrepreneurship. After finding business space available in the Kilmer Building on Lewis Street in Binghamton and an ideal home online, the family found themselves packing and moving in short order, Mavian said.

They opened a restaurant, Kilmer Brasserie & Steakhouse, earlier this year. Her past work experience helped with the transition, she said.

While her husband has the restaurant experience to run the front and back of the house, she handles all of the marketing, promotion and advertising.

"I never skipped a beat ... no learning curve at all," she said.

Being an entrepreneur isn't easy, but the quality-of-life benefits make it well worth it, Mavian said.

"I love the freedom my son has to be a child," she said. "I love the excellent schools up here."

The desire to return is so great that these people are willing to create their own jobs. This kind of domestic migration mirrors that of international brain circulation and the risk taking necessary to cross borders. High intrinsic motivation is key to successful entrepreneurship. Relocation involves a leap of faith and having to learn from failure. When you are new in town, you will make a lot of mistakes and you must compete with other people who have well established social networks. This experience makes for a great demographic to seed your region's entrepreneurial community.

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