Saturday, October 02, 2010

Brain Drain Report: Political Campaigns

Brain drain is among the finest political red herrings. This is my fourth campaign season of blogging about outmigration. As the election gets closer, the brain drain rhetoric heats up. The articles about talent leaving the state or region grow exponentially.

Chris Briem (Null Space) unearths the latest incarnation of Border Guard Bob, Pennsylvania gubernatorial candidate Tom Corbett. Corbett is the man with the plan. What the state needs is better matchmaking between college graduates and employers.

Corbett lives in suburban Pittsburgh and is familiar with that city's brain drain angst. Disregard all the numbers to the contrary, the region loses too much of its homegrown talent. Even the policymakers buy into the myth:

Still, the Allegheny Conference on Community development, a consortium of business leaders and civic groups, is working overtime to convince the region's college graduates that they needn't leave to start careers or raise families.

"To be a successful region, we need to go out as business leaders and find an accessible, prepared work force," said Randy Dearth, CEO of Lanxess North America, a Bayer spinoff headquartered near Pittsburgh.

Dearth chairs the Allegheny Conference's workplace initiative, which encourages local companies to improve retention while enticing a steady stream of new workers.

It's centerpiece is that culls listings from and other sites and lists 22,000 jobs within 50 miles of the city, about a third of them in engineering, health care or information technology. More than half the jobs listed offer salaries of at least $40,000 and 29 percent offer $60,000 or more, Dearth said.

"So when people say there are no jobs and this is a depressed area, we say, 'Look, there are good jobs out there,'" Dearth said.

Pittsburgh doesn't have a talent retention problem. That's not entirely true. If anything, Pittsburgh retains too much talent. The glut of labor drives down wages (not that a local company would complain) and the pathways of talent attraction remain moribund. This reinforces parochial mindsets, putting a drag on innovation and growth.

Regional talent management demands an outward orientation. That doesn't mean ignore local human capital. Drop the concept of retention. Educate locally and attract globally comprise the fundamental mantra of quality workforce development. Communities around the country seem to do well at one or the other, but rarely both.

Architect Todd Saunders, a Newfoundlander who moved 14 years ago to Norway, is the talent behind the dark blades of intelligent design. His client, Zita Cobb, a native of Fogo Island and president of the Shorefast Foundation, is investing some of her dot-com millions to reposition her remote community into a cultural, architecturally enlightened destination. ...

... A mission of Shorefast, a non-profit that fosters social entrepreneurship, is to provide visiting writers and artists time and space to do their work while breathing new life into a community hit by the cod fishery collapse and out-migration. Instead of outport, Cobb wants us to consider the communities of Fogo and nearby Change Islands as places of intake.

I'm waiting for Pittsburgh to imagine itself as a place of intake. Pittsburgh as outport remains stubbornly in place. Corbett is appealing to the latter pathos. He will have the state looking backwards, not forwards. The same could be said for Allegheny Conference on Community Development. The region remains stubbornly stuck in place. Border Guard Bob is immortal.

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