Tuesday, September 08, 2009

The Talent Equation

I want to banish the word "retention" from workforce development discourse. The concept is at the root of many misguided (and ineffective) policies aimed at addressing brain drain. There's a good example of the pitfalls in last Sunday's Pittsburgh Post-Gazette:

Today, the industrial economy that once created work opportunities for immigrants provides little draw. What does bring newcomers to Pittsburgh are its universities. It is here where one finds the petri dishes of fresh ideas. It is here where the incubators of innovation begin. And, unfortunately, it is here where great ideas often die due to a lack of funding, management experience or vision. As a result, it is from here that major talent escapes to other, more inviting places.

I believe Pittsburgh can be a great city again, a G-20- class city. But we must stop this exodus because with it goes the future of our community. The only way to do this is to escape the legacy of top-down controls that dampen creativity and to fund the innovation that creates job opportunities for "immigrants" (both domestic and foreign) who have the expertise to market and expand "smart" and "clean" technologies through the wide-open channels that the Internet offers us.

There is nothing wrong with the overall message of the op-ed piece. I appreciate the call for more openness in the decisionmaking and trying to make the city more attractive to global talent. But the lament about the college graduates who get away to "more inviting places" is the same kind of old-school thinking in Pittsburgh that the author admonishes. This, too, will hold the region back.

Pittsburgh needs to think of how it will entice the brains coming out of Stanford and MIT to move to there. Imagine Nanette Lepore doing whatever it takes to succeed in the big city of Southwestern PA:

IT seems like yesterday that we moved to New York City from Youngstown, Ohio. One of us came here to attend the Fashion Institute of Technology, and the other wanted to jump into the art world. We waited tables to make ends meet. With $5,000 in hand, we eventually opened a small office in New York City’s Garment Center and began making Nanette Lepore clothing — designed by one of us, marketed by the other, sold by both.

Lepore cites the special zoning laws of the Garment Center as instrumental to her success. The fashion cluster in the Big Apple demands that you leave Youngstown and set up shop where the action is located. It doesn't matter if you graduate from FIT or RISD. There are only so many places to go and ply your trade.

New York City is a perennial domestic migration loser, a brain drain casualty. The position as a major immigrant gateway tends to make that a moot point. I've noted the anxiety about out-migration in the Greater Denver area. That seems absurd because the Front Range sucks up graduates from so many other out-of-state colleges and universities.

The region shouldn't worry about where Pitt and CMU graduates go. The game should be how to lure the best and brightest outsiders to Pittsburgh. Harvesting local talent is a bad habit and a top-down approach to filling various skill gaps. At some point, as Japan and the European Union know all too well, you'll have to find help beyond the pale.


Unknown said...

The only people I know from elite undergrads are here for graduate school. The vast majority of my graduating class ended up in NYC, DC, or Boston.

As far as "Pittsburgh peer cities", Abercrombie recruits students from top undergrads to move to Columbus, but I'm not sure if any of them stay more than a few years.

joe said...

So "retention" should only be used in workforce development discourse if applied to individual firms? Sounds good to me, particularly if we focus more attention on workplace supports and other things to keep good people in good jobs.

To your broader point about luring the best and brightest to the 'Burgh, is it fair to say that a clear majority of these folks would self-identify as "progressives," politically speaking?

If that's the case, what are we to make of this map showing the growth of progressives in America these last 20 years, and Pittsburgh's place on it?

The progressive margin here was 3% in 2008, reversing decades of decline (while other areas grew).