Sunday, January 31, 2010

Emerging Brain Drain Narratives

Globally, the paradigmatic policy shift in workforce development is aptly summed up in the reframing of brain drain as brain circulation. Domestically, greater demographic detail complicates the usual hyperbole about a talent exodus. The debunking of rural brain drain continues to disseminate:

“Rural America needs to rethink its description of gains and losses,” Winchester said. “If rural America is losing high-school educated youth (the brain drain) and replacing them with those (who) at least have a bachelor’s (degree), isn’t this a brain gain?”

The new arrivals have other advantages, according to the University of Nebraska researchers: “The majority of the newcomers are in their prime earning years, so they are increasing the labor force in the region. Many new residents possess professional occupation skills. … Many were also involved in their previous community (and) bring volunteer and leadership experience.”

Winchester said his own findings “remind us that the changes we witness across rural Minnesota are complex and reflect not just challenges, but significant opportunities.”

The counter-intuitive findings deserve further scrutiny. They help to challenge our dominant assumptions. Attempts to plug the brain drain tend to be knee-jerk reactions. We could do a much better job of defining the problem.

At first blush, an article in today's Worcester Telegram & Gazette reads like a talent retention success story. Other shrinking communities would do well to take a closer look. However, I see evidence of a poorly defined baseline:

As with those elsewhere in the state, Central Massachusetts residents are most likely to stay close to home if they grew up here. A 2005 survey conducted by The Research Bureau of Worcester found that about 40 percent of area college graduates planned to stay in Central Massachusetts after graduation, roughly the same share who lived here in the first place.

The journalism employed is impressive, the analysis surprisingly sophisticated. The perception of "exodus" is challenged at every turn. The result is something Worcester can use to craft better policy. I didn't expect anything of the kind after digesting the title of the piece, "‘Brain drain' exodus wanes: Education, foreigners shore up talent pool". My impression is that all the concern is either overwrought or misplaced.

The focus seems to have been on population, not educational attainment. On the latter score, Massachusetts continues to excel. The investment in human capital is generating dividends even if the number of people living in the Worcester region fails to scream boomtown. Back to the article:

Yet recent data suggest the state's pool of young talent is far from evaporating — in fact, it is bigger than ever.

“It's sort of a positive message because a lot of the discussion before … was why are people leaving, and what's making them move away?” said Heather Brome, a senior policy analyst at the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston's New England Public Policy Center. Instead, policy makers “should be thinking broadly about how to expand the skilled labor pool.”

Like much of the rest of the country, Massachusetts is still aging as the baby boomer generation retires and fewer young people take their parents' places, Ms. Brome said. Between 1990 and 2007, the population in Massachusetts of young adults — 25- to 39-year-olds — shrunk by 19.4 percent to 1.28 million.

The Federal Reserve Bank system is at the forefront of researching talent migration in the United States. For reasons beyond my grasp, this wealth of information is rarely referenced. Instead, consultants from a variety of backgrounds have rushed into the void and retarded the development of ideas that would better revitalize our shrinking cities. The result? Sean Safford is screaming for the head of Richard Florida.

In that regard, I think the backlash against the creative class cult is useful. I wouldn't dismiss Safford as representative of the rabble with nothing more than an ax to grind. The criticism aimed at Florida and his evangelists is warranted. Florida is directly influencing economic development policy in Ontario. The 3Ts narrative is popular thanks to the aggressive selling of the ideas. At the rotten core of this entire enterprise is the flight of young talent from Pittsburgh, a gross mischaracterization of the challenges facing that region. That's why CEOs for Cities boosters are still clamoring for more effective retention of local graduates.

That dog won't hunt and we have gobs of data at our disposal to prove it. Yet we insist on ignoring the work of the Fed and repeat the same mistakes ad nauseam. At this point, I don't trust anyone spewing forth net-migration statistics because I know better numbers are readily available. I'm increasingly convinced that the deceit is intentional.

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