Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Brainy Burgh

Update: While writing the post below, I couldn't figure out where I recently read Chris Briem commenting on the educational attainment of women in Pittsburgh. I just found it in the Post-Gazette article about the last decade:

Moreover, the region probably has one of the most highly educated female labor forces in the country, added Christopher Briem, a regional economist at the University of Pittsburgh. While no firm numbers are yet available, "we are so far off the charts" in terms of educated females, he said.

----------------------------------end update---------------------------------

As is the case in rural Minnesota, shrinking population numbers can mask brain gain. I've endeavored to detail how Pittsburgh is amassing talent despite the bad press and relatively anemic in-migration. Pittsburgh is a lot smarter than you might expect:

Pittsburgh ranks among the most literate cities in the U.S., according to a recent [study by Central Connecticut State University].

The report scored cities of 250,000 people or more against several indicators, including education level, Internet use, newspaper circulation, number of booksellers, library services and local publications.

Pittsburgh was fourth in 2009, up from its 2008 rank of No. 12. Philadelphia also made the list, but ranked 32nd, down from 28th a year earlier.

While Rust Belt cities can do little to address the population issues, educational attainment is much more pliable to public policy. Thus, companies such as Google are eager to deepen their footprint in migration losers such as Pittsburgh. Given today's prevailing demographics, celebrating better population numbers seems silly. Net-migration is a mostly meaningless indicator.

I'm overstating my position, but polemics are necessary to clarify the point. The population gain game is a relic of the industrial era. Short term winners such as Boise prove to be economic losers. Perception continues to drive migration resulting in some not-so-rational choices:

“People come here from California, Florida and other places because they heard there were jobs here,” said Cookie Wallace with Workforce Solutions Alamo. “There was a guy in here last week from Las Vegas that said he heard there were jobs here.

“He rented an apartment in San Marcos and started looking,” she said.

This migration to Texas from other states by people looking for gainful employment has been going on since the first wave arrived after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, said Kellie Stallings, executive director of Connections, a nonprofit that provides counseling, emergency youth housing and other services in New Braunfels.

“People come in from Michigan thinking things are going to be better in Texas, thinking they are going to be able to just find a job (like you used to be able to),” she said.

You could do a lot worse than Texas. Folks are still heading to Portland (Oregon) chasing yesterday's buzz. At best, net migration is a lagging indicator with population numbers mostly telling a story born a generation ago.

To put the discussion in another light, consider manufacturing. A decline in jobs is confused with a decline in output. America produces more with less workers. Companies don't need numbers. They need a highly-skilled workforce:

The trouble is not that the manufacturing sector is shrinking. It is that America is struggling to produce enough skilled workers. Bringing back manufacturing jobs won't fix that.

Total employed in manufacturing doesn't tell us much about the state of this economic sector. Similarly, total population says little about the state of the region. To bring this post full circle, Chris Briem:

Also note (again) the impact of age in the constant debate over how 'educated' Pittsburgh is. What do we have a disproportionate number of? Old folks maybe... but in particular older women since women live longer than men in general. Most metrics of educational attainment at the regional level aggregate together everyone age 25 and over without accounting for age issues. So consider how different our relative ranking is when comapred to other regions like that compared to looking at just narrow age cohorts.. in partciular the youngest age folks who represent how well we have been doing at educating folks in the recent decade or so.

Chris is referencing this graph. He makes mention of the Burgh Diaspora concerning the surprising educational attainment of women (Pittsburgh's hidden brain gain). Just speculating, but women expatriates are more likely to return home than men. In other words, women are more likely to be boomerang migrants. This makes investing in female human capital a better policy bet. In turn, I'm reminded of my studies of gender theory such as the inherent privileging of women in citizenship law around the world. Paternal links to the homeland are universally considered to be weaker. Also, the geographic mobility of women tends to be more restricted. The result is a wage exploited captive labor pool. Hence, Pittsburgh has a preponderance of inexpensive and well-educated workers who apparently love to read.

1 comment:

Mark Arsenal said...

Just a thought: growth for the sake of growth is never sustainable.

Mutatis mutandis, population grwoth means nothing. Growth of diversity is probably a better measure. Did the population grow more or less diverse over X period. Diversity could be measured many ways, obviously, but I'd say measure it by skill...