Monday, May 17, 2010

Selling The Talent Dividend

Tulsa has a dream:

Officials from Tulsa and Oklahoma City chambers mentioned the importance of attracting and retaining college graduates and entrepreneurs, who in the past might have sought jobs or started companies in larger regional metros such as Dallas or Denver.

Susan Harris, senior vice president of education and workforce for the Tulsa Metro Chamber, said if the Tulsa area can grow its percentage of residents with college degrees just 1 percentage point, it would mean an extra $646 million per year in economic activity. "Everything we’re doing is about making sure we are open and receptive to new people coming in and living here, locating their businesses and bringing their families and we are receptive to higher density development in the inner core of the city,” Harris said.

Harris said the chamber is working with colleges, universities and businesses to identify residents who were close to finishing a degree but never did. Another effort includes tightening the integration of career pathways. For example, in the nursing field, it includes ways for certified nursing assistants to get their licensed practical nurse certification and for registered nurses to get bachelor of science degrees in nursing.

Harris is talking about the talent dividend. CEOs for Cities has done a great job getting this narrative inserted into the policy discussion. The challenge now is figuring out a way to sell it to the constituency. I bet you can guess Ohio's approach:

It’s a tough job. Even though Ohio produces more bachelor’s degrees per capita than the national average, it ranks a distant 36th in the proportion of adults with at least an associate’s degree, 35th in the proportion with a bachelor’s degree or higher, and 26th in the proportion with a graduate degree. That’s because, like the students in that Bowling Green lecture hall, nearly two-thirds of graduates—and half of those with graduate and professional degrees—leave the state.

“In Michigan, and I think it’s becoming true about Ohio, the joke has always been that the biggest export is college graduates,” said David Jackson, a political science professor at Bowling Green. “Why do they leave? Because they need a job.” ...

... The blueprint also gave the universities the role of measurably improving the economy. This got the newspapers comparing Fingerhut’s job, as Crain’s Chicago Business put it, to Tom Cruise’s character’s in Mission Impossible. “This is easy,” Fingerhut said, pointing to a dog-eared, loose-leaf copy of his strategic plan for an objective titled, “Graduate more students.” “But this,” he said, pointing to the next objective, “Keeping graduates in Ohio,” “this is all new to higher education. Isn’t this the mayor’s job, the chamber of commerce’s job? No, it’s our job, and we have ways to do this.”

Fingerhut promises to persuade 70 percent of graduates to stay in Ohio—roughly the same percentage that now leaves. “We own this metric now, and that’s a radical departure,” he said. “Sure, there’s a huge risk. The pushback I got on this was, ‘My gosh, do we really control the economy? Do we control that the hot cities are Chicago or Seattle?’ Yes, we can control enough of this to make a difference about it.”

The goal is to get Ohio voters behind more funding for state institutions of higher education. I think the strategy to curry favor is a smart one. Everyone understands brain drain and that it is bad. However, Fingerhut can't possibly deliver. I'm almost certain he knows this. His job is to push the policy through.

A similar pitch is languishing in Wisconsin. A bunch of states (e.g. Nevada) are serving up the outmigration red herring in hopes of resisting the mood swing towards strong fiscal restraint. It has worked before. It will work again.

The discussion we are not having is how these institutions fit into the economic picture. Whether graduates stay or go is of little consequence. The entrepreneurs matter. Ohio has done a great job of making that case to residents:

"This really has succeeded and added to the economic development opportunities in the state," said Sandra J. Degen, vice president for research at the University of Cincinnati and a member of the Third Frontier's advisory board. She called it the "cream on the top" for the state's initiatives to boost jobs in the rustbelt.

The ballot measure has broad support from state Republican and Democratic parties and several state universities. The United for Jobs and Ohio's Future coalition, a political action committee, said last month it had secured more than 150 endorsements from a mix of organizations across the state, ranging from the Ohio Business Roundtable to the League of Women Voters.

But opponents say the measure raises the state's debt load at the wrong time.

Third Frontier did pass. Why not piggyback on that success? I'd guess that the money is one coffer filled. Brain drain fever might load up another one. I support the cause. Fingerhut isn't being honest. In the long run, this will hurt Ohio. But no one seems willing to paint an accurate picture of the talent migration. There's too much money at stake.


CJFrey said...

You're right on about Ohio's approach to brain drain. I teach at BGSU, and all we hear about is economic development. I agree with the comment in the article that economic development is the job of business and the government, and that it can be part of the job of universities. To date, however, we have seen few changes 'on the ground' at BGSU, and I'm sure the same can be said at other state-assisted institutions. Perhaps this is because Ohio's universities already do their job: teaching about and engaging students in the world around them.

The government and business need to do theirs: build an economy, a social and physical environment that attracts the best people from around the country and the world to Ohio.

Jim Russell said...


Thanks for sharing your view from the front lines. I tend to think that outmigration is an indication that the universities are doing an excellent job. Also, I read conflicting reports about Ohio's brain drain. Akron seems to think they are retaining well over 80% of their graduates. No one disputes the attraction problem, but none of the politicians seem to have the courage to address that issue.