Wednesday, April 28, 2010

War For Talent: Garbage In, Garbage Out

I read with great interest a WWVB post about a misleading graphic in Pittsburgh alt-weekly City Paper. The most egregious oversight is the lack of context that would allow the reader to gauge the relative value of the data. Instead, clever manipulation of the chart presented does the analysis for the reader. This is one way that misconceptions and myths get passed along to the next generation. In many repects, it reminds me of brain drain hysteria.

Any newspaper or think tank can find a data narrative that fits the preferred conventional wisdom. Often lacking is a comparison to other cities and states. Thus, every region is concerned about young talent leaving. Of more pressing concern is the lack of granular analysis, or what Demography Matters warns as the "importance of details":

National populations don't exhibit uniform demographic behaviours, with these instead varying according to such factors as ethnicity, region, class, or religion--East Germany within Germany is a perfect example of this. Migration is a notoriously "lumpy" phenomenon, depending critically on all manner of formal and informal links between sending and receiving areas, links which don't exist in the same way for different populations. One-third of the Mexican-born population in the United States was born in three west-central Mexican states (Jalisco, Guanajuato, Michoacán) where only 15% of the Mexican population lives. A wildly disproportionate share of Japan's emigrants have come from the Ryukyu Islands, centered on Okinawa, virtually an independent state until the late 19th century. A disproportionate number of the Atlantic Canadian province of New Brunswick's Francophones (and perhaps Francophones elsewhere in Atlantic Canada) move to Québec. And yes, a disproportionate number of the immigrants to the United States from Muslim countries were professionals, while European countries which received immigrants explicitly recruited immigrants for unskilled labour.

Context more than matters. Without it, the analyst cannot possibly comprehend the pattern. The conclusions are useless. The devil is in the details:

Today, Pittsburgh is faced with a new challenge in terms of its workforce pipeline. A comprehensive workforce study completed by the Three Rivers Workforce Investment Board indicated that Pittsburgh has a 50-50 challenge. Basically, this means that Pittsburgh has 50,000 fewer younger works and 50,000 additional older works than its peer cities. All in all, Pittsburgh has been challenged and will continue to confront economic decline and stagnation; however the region’s willingness to face these challenges head-on has proven to be effective.

Pittsburgh's unique demographic challenges inform workforce development policy. However, the metrics used to track progress are not as nuanced. A glimpse of the educational attainment for the population 25 and over is evidence of success. Relatively speaking, Pittsburgh still has a lot of work to do. That is, if you ignore the 50-50 challenge.

If we could control for the demographic distortion, then we might begin to compare apples-to-apples. As it stands now, Pittsburgh is a little-known treasure trove of young talent. Experts tracking the ebb and flow of the college educated are providing a woefully inadequate map of human capital. And when I say "experts" I mean the International Economic Development Council. (See the report hyperlinked above.)

We are drowning in data while starving for details. This is one of the shortcomings of the blogosphere. The numbers are divorced from context. We exchange information, but not knowledge. It's knowledge that drives talent migration:

Great idea. Reach the decision maker in the family through a source of information they trust, their favorite mommy blogger.

Some people may criticize this approach saying that the old way of marketing offers the potential to reach more people. They are right. You can print a million brochures and pay to get your community recognized by Google.

But I’d respond to those critics by asking them to consider how I got to Galena twelve years ago, in the days before social media. I didn’t Google a website, I didn’t pick up a brochure at visitors center. A friend told me about it. Someone who’s opinion I trusted.

Trust is why migration is a lumpy phenomenon. Understand this geography and your region or business will have a big edge in the war for talent. Ignore the details at your own peril. I'm looking at you, Arizona. Actually, I'm looking at the entire Sun Belt.

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