Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Detroit Talent

I'll start this Detroit talent story in Las Vegas, a city now confronted with a serious brain drain problem. I was quoted in that article and the journalist who wrote the piece, J. Patrick Coolican, circled back to my comments today:

To begin with, if we’re to rebuild our city, we need these kids to succeed. I recently wrote an article that examined whether we have a brain-drain problem — losing our best and brightest to out-of-state schools and other cities such as New York and San Francisco.

The short answer is that, yes, this is happening, but geographer and economic development expert Jim Russell delivered an important insight: Sure, the elite kids will leave, but you should be proud that you’ve given them the education and skills to find success elsewhere and let them go, because they’re going to go anyway.

Where you should focus your attention, Russell said, is on the diamonds-in-the-rough, the first-in-the-family to go college, who will be grateful for the opportunity you’ve given them and stay home and help build a new Las Vegas.

Coolican is taking the long-view of developing talent. This is the Pittsburgh Way. It is a reasonable response to exodus. But the return on that investment will take decades. Recently, Edward Glaeser spoke specifically about Detroit and his analysis applies equally well to Las Vegas:

Education levels can change far more quickly at the city level than at the nation level because of migration. A city can attract skilled, entrepreneurial people in much less time than it can produce them and, unfortunately, a city can also lose important parts of its human capital base with astonishing rapidity.

I referenced that passage last week. Las Vegas can set about producing skilled, entrepreneurial people. That's a dividend worth seeking. It's also a tough sell politically. Voters from 40-years in the future aren't going to keep you in office. Naturally, regions turn to talent retention. That will get you reelected.

Glaeser doesn't suggest plugging the brain drain as a way for Detroit to move forward. It's all about attraction, the quick fix. Both Detroit and Las Vegas can benefit from this policy wisdom. Develop the diamonds-in-the-rough. Design a city that entices people to move there.

There is a third prescription that no one discusses. What to do about the "elite" kids who leave? If not retention, then what? Detroit may be on the cusp of solving my riddle:

UM Senior Research Specialist Don Grimes presented his study of the migration patterns of the college-aged population — 17-21 years old. From 2001 to 2004, Michigan lost 72,000 young people in that demographic, according to the research. Illinois, on the other hand, gained 13,354 during that same time period. Washington had the greatest increase: nearly 57,000 people.

But Grimes' realization during the conference that some of the audience members felt an inclination to leave the state, explore and then come back gave the economist food for thought.

"Maybe they do need to leave and come back," Grimes said. "I'm interested to do research now on the rebounding of 27- to 31-year-olds."

A lot of young talent can develop via relocation. Geographic mobility is a form of economic development. It seems crazy because we are place-centric. We care more about the city than the residents. The terroir is what matters. We should be thinking about how the city helps to develop people, not how the people can develop the city.

Las Vegas is beginning the process of growing its diaspora. Detroit Nation already exists. Use that network to help develop the people of Southeastern Michigan. Strategically channel the return flow to enable the most distressed neighbors, not neighborhoods. Ready these folks for export. Detroit will rebuild the entire country.


keetz4 said...

I am part of the brain migration to WA state. I had a Master's when I moved here. WA state has created a place that is attractive to brains. In that vein, one of the guys in my grad school cohort was from Pittsburgh but now lives here. He talks fondly about Pittsburgh, and he and his wife [who also is from Pittsburgh] think about moving back.....but never do. I think it behooves Pittsburgh to find out why that particular group of Pittsburgh brains who have left Pittsburgh, but who profess to love the city.......why they hesitate to go back. It might be enlightening.

Jim Russell said...

I think we are in the early stages of better understanding these domestic diasporas. I think we could catalyze more return migration if we knew why expatriates didn't make the move.