Saturday, March 28, 2009

Tech Belt College Towns

Pittsburgh is a big college town. That fact may be the main reason that Pittsburgh is weathering the economic storm better than most regions. The news (hat tip Creative Class blog) is even better in nearby Morgantown, home of West Virginia University (WVU):

But for now, at least, job seekers who act quickly -- and are willing to relocate -- could well fare better in places like Morgantown, which is about 70 miles south of Pittsburgh near the Pennsylvania border. College towns like Morgantown have a distinct advantage over many other cities: They enjoy a constant stream of graduates, some who stay put and others who return years later -- and each year brings a new crop of students and potential residents to the area.

Like other college towns, unemployment in Morgantown (3.9%) is among the lowest in the United States. WVU anchors the southern most part of the Tech Belt, an economic corridor surprisingly rich in human capital. The positively gushing story in the Wall Street Journal is indicative of the transformation, right down to the boomerang migration phenomenon, this region is undergoing.

There exists considerable value in exporting talent, as the Morgantown boom exemplifies:

Nikki Bowman, a 1992 graduate of WVU, is the kind of person economists have in mind when they speak of "human capital." She spent years in the magazine industry in places like Chicago and Washington, D.C., before returning last year to start her own magazine, WV Living, which was launched in November.

"It was my dream to come back, and I knew I could make it work," says Ms. Bowman, 37. "Part of why I wanted to be here was to pull from the journalism school and I have a lot of great interns as a result," which helps keep her payroll costs down.

The same goes for Pittsburgh:

I am the Professional Projects Manager at amBX and an ETC and CMU Drama Alumni so the hiring of ETC talent into the UK market is already well underway, also the reason that this project and opportunity came about... believe me ETC is one of the main reasons I too am bullish on Pittsburgh and amBX is why i am bullish on the future of entertainment technology.... together it is a very exciting world atm.

As I posted a few days ago, amBX is investing in the ETC and mining the talent produced at Carnegie Mellon University. If it doesn't already, this relationship will have significant economic development implications for Pittsburgh. That is, if key regional stakeholders are willing to leverage these farflung assets.

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