Thursday, February 12, 2009

Solving My Own Riddle

My riddle not only applies to Pittsburgh or other Rust Belt cities, but to Atlantic Canada as well:

Since education makes a person more likely to leave your region, how do you justify your investment in human capital?

Peter Panepento (Global Erie) laments Erie's lack of investment in human capital. Cleveland+ has designs on playing matchmaker between local talent and industry. Workforce development can help individuals, but how it will benefit the community footing the bill is somewhat of a mystery. More education increases geographic mobility, the best and brightest the most likely to leave.

We should understand how a brain drain crisis is typically framed:

Dr Richard Wilson, chief executive of Tiga, the trade body representing computer game developers, said "mammoth" tax breaks and subsidies in Canada are putting British businesses at risk and warned that thousands of jobs that could have been created in the UK are going overseas.

If Britain produced enough talent, then computer game developers wouldn't be going anywhere. Any place hoping to lure Tiga will have to do much better than offer bigger tax breaks. Tiga won't move to just anyplace. Otherwise, we would see virtual game production booming in the Carribean or in some other tax haven (Isle of Man?).

Richard Florida, perhaps more than anyone else, has honed in on the density of talent driving the migration of enterprise. Appealing to workers is a smarter bet than kowtowing to industry with incentives. Perhaps how you serve your government pork is the best way to discern between Kotkin and Florida.

By now, the absurdity of retaining talent should be crystal clear. The elephant in the room is actively exporting brains. Ah, but how can you justify higher taxes for education if you ship your graduates to sunny and beautiful Boulder, Colorado?

Erie's problem is Pittsburgh's solution. Southwestern Pennsylvania is ready to ship video game developers to the UK and software programmers to Bangalore, India. Eds and Meds Pittsburgh could endeavor to solve labor shortages around the world. That's a good bet locally since a shrinking population will soon fail to support all the regional colleges and universities. Pittsburgh higher education must broaden its market.

More importantly, prodigious talent production will eventually attract business. To give my hometown of Erie some love, embrace the green industry paradigm. But train workers to fill positions where they are most needed (e.g. Front Range of Colorado). This may sound suicidal, but it is far from it. And servicing local labor demand is a proven non-starter. The garage start-ups will inevitably occur and a few companies will either move to Erie or open a branch office in order to gain a leg up on the competition for employees.

The supply of talent, not cheaper production costs, will define the next round of globalization. We've witnessed the advantages of the geographic mobility of enterprise. Now we'll see what nomadic labor can do.

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