Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Brain Gain Migration

In today's Business Journal Daily, there is a great story about brain gain in Youngstown, Ohio. The newspaper interviewed, among other people, Dr. Cynthia Anderson. (Watch the interview in the sidebar to the right of the article.) Dr. Anderson is the president of Youngstown State University. She expresses quite clearly the link between return migration and the economic redevelopment of the Mahoning Valley. The narrative she weaves is exactly the same story that Jim Cossler of the Youngstown Business Incubator has been evangelizing over the last few years.

The brain gain trend isn't new. In fact, the brain drain that everyone laments still exists. The focus has shifted away from talent lost to leveraging talent gained. Likewise, resources are shifted from retention to force multiplying the attraction. That's in Youngstown. I hope to see something similar take root in Cleveland and Pittsburgh.

What's helping to bring the brain gain migration into focus is the Great Reset. The Atlantic posted a reminder today about Richard Florida's musings on the subject:

Before the crisis, Frey notes, young college grads had been strongly attracted to Sunbelt bubble metros like Phoenix, Las Vegas, and California's Inland Empire, where housing was cheap, credit readily available, and local economies were booming around real estate and services. But that has changed. In the wake of the crisis, young adults are flowing towards larger cities, college towns, knowledge-based and creative economy metros, and even some older Rustbelt metros are beginning to increase their ability to retain and attract them.

Austin topped the list in attracting college grads in the 2007-2009 period -- it was the only U.S. metro to register more than a two percent gain in college grads. Two other Texas metros -- Dallas and Houston -- also did well, making the top five in terms of total migration, along with Denver and Seattle. Raleigh, North Carolina,, with its concentration of universities and tech, and Portland, with its quality of life, registered large percentage gains. Migration of young adults to places like Phoenix, California's Inland Empire, Atlanta, and Charlotte, which topped the list in 2005-2007, the immediate pre-crisis period, slowed. ...

... But perhaps the best news is that a significant number of older Rustbelt metros -- like Buffalo, Cleveland, St. Louis, Hartford, and Milwaukee -- that had been losing young adults and college grads have stemmed those previous losses, while others -- including Pittsburgh, Columbus, and Baltimore, as well as New Orleans -- have begun to turn them into gains.

Florida's thinking about Frey's research drives my comparison of the diverging fortunes of Pittsburgh and Charlotte. Charlotte's decline is indicative of the shift away from conventional knowledge economy migration. Pittsburgh's rise is tied to an emerging economic epoch. I'm still trying to figure out what that epoch might be. The dominant migration patter is clear: Boomerang. Youngstown and Jim Cossler are ahead of the curve.

Call it "brain circulation" if you like. The missing piece is a workforce development program that acknowledges this important flow of talent. This policy innovation will come out of Youngstown, Pittsburgh, and/or Cleveland. The children of Rust Belt refugees are coming home.

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