Friday, November 21, 2008

Mapping Talent Flows

The Kauffman Foundation recently published its annual State New Economy Index. One of the metrics is the net migration of knowledge workers (culled form US Census data). Aggregating numbers at the state level isn't all that helpful (metropolitan data would be more useful) and I'd like to know the geography of this talent flow. Where are your region's brains going?

In most places, particularly the Rust Belt, the number of young minds to shape is shrinking:

"Being a school that has recruited heavily in Allegheny (County), the decreases we're going to see through 2016 are dramatic," said Thomas Schaefer, director of admissions at La Roche College in McCandless. Its enrollment dropped by 74 students.

In response, schools are casting their nets wider -- going west and, in some cases, fishing overseas for students. Schools are luring them with alumni who live in those areas, online tools and fatter financial aid packages.

"We're targeting states that we've never gone to before," said Sherri Bett, director of admissions at Seton Hill University in Greensburg. "We're going to California, Arizona, Texas, Nevada."

The paradigm of cultivating local human capital is out-dated, a relic of the industrial economy. But Pittsburgh is just catching up with the times. The good news is that the area will attract plenty of new blood. The bad news is that Southwestern Pennsylvania can't support the current number of graduates from area colleges and universities. Pittsburgh's strength will continue to be the export of talent.

In order to generate any dividend from the above investment, Pittsburgh must track its talent flows:

Just as passionate Steelers fans still follow the career of wide receiver Antwaan Randle El, devoted Pittsburgh diners-out don't lose interest in talented chefs just because they move to more distant kitchens. Fans of Chris Jackson were sad to see him leave Six Penn Kitchen, but he's not forgotten -- and he can be tracked down easily at his new cafe in Brooklyn, New York, the fulfillment of a long-time dream that he shared with his sister, Michelle.

Kudos to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette for following the out-migration of such a notable chef. However, this newspaper is also a relic of an industrial geography. It is ill-suited to the task of helping to connect the region with its expatriates. Pittsburgh has been, for a while, much more than a point on a map. The more novel forms of social media should be employed to service this geographically mobile demographic.

Traditional media is full of the kind of stories that stretch the beat beyond recognition. Thanks to Chris Briem, I read a story about the musical talent churn between Pittsburgh and Western North Carolina:

Dilshad Posnock is a native of Mumbai, India, who completed her undergraduate studies in flute performance at the Royal College of Music. After meeting and marrying Jason during his London year, Dilshad came to the United States, where she received a master’s degree from Carnegie Mellon, studying with Jeanne Baxtresser, the former principal flute of the New York Philharmonic. Having a particular interest in flute instruction, Dilshad has published with Baxtresser, and is now, as joint author with famous flute virtuoso James Galway, writing a book describing teaching methods for flute. Dilshad also plays when needed with the Asheville Symphony. When I recently interviewed her, she was hoping her child would take a long nap so she could practice for the Copland Third Symphony.

Both Posnocks are strong musicians and an asset to have in our community. It is good to have them at this end of the “traffic flow,” only occasionally returning to Pittsburgh to grace the ensembles of that city with their presence but making their home here as part of a growing community of talented young musicians in Western North Carolina.

Pittsburgh is a major hub for talent migration. The region is failing to take advantage of this asset because of the industrial legacy still in operation. Posnock is considered to be a loss, brain drain. The most successful cities have high out-migration rates and Pittsburgh's talent exports put it on par with these global urban powerhouses. Demography demands that shrinking cities figure out how to squeeze value out of "exodus." Geographic mobility is normal for highly educated people, but we need a new conception of community if we are going to tap that flow.

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