Saturday, August 14, 2010

Brain Drain Report: Battle Of The Paradigms

As election season heats up, so does the political rhetoric about brain drain. Surprisingly, I'm also seeing more counter-narratives and consideration of more innovative approaches to the demographic challenges facing many communities. Reimagine Rural re-imagines brain gain. Penn State University launches Rural Economic Development Clinic. South Dakota reconsiders the dominant policy story:

Her story is a familiar one, with many South Dakota university graduates picking up and moving after earning degrees. But the belief that a majority of university graduates leaves the state and contributes to a “brain drain” is a myth, says South Dakota Board of Regents executive director Jack Warner.

“What might have been factual some years ago seems to be changing, but peoples’ perceptions don’t change as rapidly,” he said. “South Dakota has stopped bleeding grads. We’re importing more college graduates than exporting now.”

While there is a commonly held belief that the state has to do a better job of retaining the students it educates, the numbers often repeated are off the mark, according to officials.

The theme is taking a fresh look at an old problem with often unexpected discoveries. Assumptions are challenged, particularly in the arena of international economic development:

Our findings question both the pessimistic view that high-skilled migration hurts development, and the optimistic view that most countries can benefit to the extent Taiwan, China and India have from trade and investment flows. For most countries, the first-order effects are mostly an individual phenomenon – individuals stand to gain a lot from migration, and the second-order effects on others are small in comparison and seem to at least balance one another out if not also be a net positive. In the absence of compelling evidence for massive externalities from their presence, we argue governments should not be so concerned about high rates of skilled emigration, but focus instead on the basics of providing the policy environment needed to foster growth and innovation at home.

Such considerations open up the possibilities for policy innovation, such as Manpower's announcement of serving the talent pool on both sides of the US-Mexico border as a better approach to regional economic development. I think such initiatives will be increasingly common as leaders come to grips with new workforce development issues such as acute talent shortages. However, we are still mired in a period of great uncertainty. A glut of unfilled jobs is by no means a foregone conclusion.

Regardless, more traditional solutions to brain drain are now under greater scrutiny. In Detroit:

On Friday, Detroit Regional Chamber President and CEO Sandy Baruah will meet with Fusion's advisory board to discuss the group and its fate. ...

... “We're in the very early stages of this plan,” he said, “so it's ripe for input.” The chamber launched Fusion in 2007 as an attempt to combat Michigan's young professional brain drain.

But, Baruah said, the group hasn't attracted the membership necessary to draw top-drawer programming or make a significant impact.

“One of the things this region needs to do much better at is collaboration,” Baruah said. “We presented it to the board and the board agrees that we will be stronger as a community if we have fewer but more robust, more well-funded, better-supported young professional organizations.”

Fusion is the recycling of an old idea about retaining talent. Do a better job of integrating young adults into the community, give them a stake, and they won't leave. It can have some positive effects, but the overall impact isn't that impressive. What's lacking is an honest look at the baseline situation. Detroit needs to be having the same conversation that is going on in South Dakota.

There are talent migration trends that regions could better leverage for economic development. Dynamic job creators are moving back home:

Successful, smart and talented people often say hometown culture played a role in creating the person they are today. Those same people, however, at a turning point in their lives, often move away to pursue something bigger and better. But if their home really is special – offering a combination of the personal and professional fulfillment they crave – one day they'll come back.

hiVelocity talked to three entrepreneurs who did just that, including one non-native who returned to the state to start his own company. All say Ohio offered them the same career opportunities that they could find on the East or West coasts, with the added benefits of vibrant community life and family support, which grew more important as they started their families.

Instead of starting another Fusion-like organization, why not do a better job of reaching out to the superstars who want to return? The funding priorities for brain gain are often backwards. Attracting people should receive most of the money. Retaining newcomers is second. As for encouraging local graduates to stick around, there are plenty of existing organizations which could lead the charge without the need of additional resources. The current returns on such investments are lousy. We can and should do better.

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