Thursday, March 04, 2010

Homeward Bound Brains

Since brain drain is typically misunderstood, policies tend to focus on retention. That young talent would leave at all is distressing. Every community and region complains about the problem, but not all places face a crisis:

[Steve Norton (executive director of the New Hampshire center of Public Policy Studies)] said, according to demographic data culled from Ken Johnson of the Carsey Institute, there is not a "brain drain" in New Hampshire from young people leaving, but young people grow up in-state, leave in their 20s and then return later in life. While it is an aging state, he said, New Hampshire remains in its "economic prime." He argued that policy focusing on transportation, housing prices, business development and the like can retain and attract young people.

Norton added that migration is a critical part of change in New Hampshire. Major economic shifts forward and changes to the political landscape have been driven by migration, Norton said, and he cited large-scale migration from Massachusetts over the last several years and mass migration to Florida as some of those recent changes.

The first step is taking an honest stock of the migration situation. On the balance, is your state really bleeding talent? If so, is the reason too many leaving or too few arriving? Most Rust Belt communities suffer from the latter. Rare is the proposal to aggressively court outsiders.

Rarer still is the mapping of the talent mobility patterns. I think of these graphics as economic opportunity pathways. Outward or inward, these lines of trust represent potential business transactions, interfaces with globalization.

As we drill down into the demographic data, a trend is emerging. Graduates can and do leave, but many of them return:

Colorado State University drew Anne Wyestra away from her Sioux City home for college. The attraction to a big city took her to New York City after graduation. "Did all the New York scene, it was wonderful," Wyestra smiled. The United States Census Bureau says Wyestra's not alone. From 1995 to 2000, Iowa lost more young people than any other state in the country, besides North Dakota.

"Look at the demographics really anywhere in the Midwest you see an outflow of people and we just won't be able to grow in the future," said Sioux City Economic Development Director Marty Dougherty. Iowa's brain drain is a problem making Dougherty's job more difficult. "Despite the economy today, the demographic trends are that we won't have enough people to employ and to meet the needs of our employers and the future employers that we're trying to attract," he continued.

Wyestra was unique, the birth of her first nephew fostered a desire to live closer to family, even if it was Des Moines or Chicago. "I thought, no I don't want to work in Sioux City, I grew up there. I wanted to get away from that," she said, adding a job interview with Sioux City Economic Development changed all that. "I got to know some of the people just in the interview process and was very impressed with them. They had been there for ten, fifteen years, they really enjoyed what they did, and I saw the possibilities of what I could do, here in Sioux City." It's an experience Wyestra and her team hope to replicate thousands of times over in the years to come.

Thus was born "Home Again", an award-winning workforce development initiative designed to encourage more boomerang migration to Sioux City, Iowa. Home Again is a powerful use of social media. The website archives "success stories of young professionals who moved home." It's not just another prayer for expatriates to return. The project design employs a number of best practices. That written, there are improvements that could be made. Perhaps GLUE would consider an "I Will Return If ..." campaign.

Every year during Lent, Dan King has this question: "Are there any places that you know of that do Friday fish fries in Houston?"

Although King has lived in this city for a decade, he still misses the fish fries at churches and restaurants in his native Pittsburgh.

And while we're on the subject of fish, King also wants to know where he can get "really good fish sandwiches"?

I hope the diaspora application is obvious. Food nostalgia is an expression of community, one we ignore. Developing this consciousness will catalyze more boomerang migration. More vitally, it signals how much your region values expatriates as instrumental to economic redevelopment.

Speaking of which, Aaron Renn recommends a 10% solution to revitalize urban core:

My thesis is that for cities below the top tier (tier one’s are already seeing a major urban influx because of their high quality product and economic changes), the best policy is to seek to capture about 10% of net new regional growth for the urban core.

Tim Logan (St. Louis Post-Dispatch) jumped on the idea and pitched it to his city. I've had an e-mail exchange with Tim about boomerang migration initiatives. I see a synergy between Aaron's scheme and Tim's desire to call home the St. Louis Diaspora. Put expatriates at the heart of the 10% growth goal. Enlist the local social media community to design the campaign. Connect that talent with the knowledgeable agents of demography and economic development, a true trans-generational effort.

Geographically target the brain gain where it can do the most good.

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