Saturday, October 22, 2011

Economic Geography Of Talent Production

Last Monday, I posted a little something about the talent production clusters in Boston and Pittsburgh:

Pittsburgh and Boston are the only two metros "dominated" by the higher education industry. I'd characterize them as talent production centers. Other metros may produce more talent. But that doesn't define them like it does Pittsburgh and Boston. Talent production activities should continue to agglomerate in both regions. At some point this week, I'll take a closer look at what that means.

Producing talent means a lot more than supplying a local workforce. Research universities are, in and of themselves, engines of economic development. An article about just that in Area Development Online:

From California’ Silicon Valley to Austin’s “Technology Cluster,” there are numerous examples of successful collaborations between universities and industry. Chief executive officers and others involved in site selection should consider whether collaboration with one or more universities would enhance their next facility location decision. In the right circumstances, working with a research university in the area in which your company is locating may prove to add tremendous value. ...

... [S]uccessful collaborations tend to attract new business, and successful new businesses attract other new businesses. The ripple effect can be felt even in a heavily industrialized city like Pittsburgh, where the acclaimed Carnegie Mellon University Collaborative Innovation Center has attracted more than 200 new companies — including Apple Pittsburgh, Disney Research Pittsburgh, and Intel Research Lab — and 9,000 jobs, and has become the catalyst for considerable revitalization.

The main attraction would seem to be knowledge production. Idea spills over into innovation. Innovation becomes marketable product. A startup is born. All the while, proximity matters. Pick a site near a research university.

As part of Scholarship in Action, the university lured Cliff I. Davidson to Syracuse after a more than three-decade-long career at Carnegie Mellon University. He was attracted by the possibility of working with the city of Syracuse to use "green" roofs to manage storm water. "I tried to do this work in Pittsburgh, and because our university did not have the same kind of outlook to teaming with the community, it was difficult," says Mr. Davidson, a professor of engineering and computer science who, with graduate students, has installed research equipment on top of the Syracuse convention center's 1.5-acre green roof.

The effort also led the university to establish the Connective Corridor, which links the campus with the downtown area through buses that bring students and others to theaters, museums, and buildings Syracuse has purchased to house some of its academic programs. In the last year, approximately 17,000 riders a month used the buses, compared with 250 a month when the service began in 2006, according to the university.

The implication is that CMU isn't willing to sacrifice its standing as a major research university in order to better engage the host community. All the while, Pittsburgh would seem to be benefiting regardless of the focus. However, staying the course (membership status in the Association of American Universities) didn't seem to be working for Syracuse.

I don't understand why Syracuse University can't maintain a research-driven agenda and better engage the host community. The new mission does highlight the value of a university or college beyond the usual talent pipeline of graduates and higher education jobs. The brains don't have to stay for Syracuse to benefit.

In fact, Pittsburgh's (and Boston's) brain drain is what attracted the likes of Disney to partner with CMU. Companies are well aware from whence the talent came. The graduate jobs fair is a map of the Pittsburgh connectivity economy. That's the power of the talent production cluster. Pittsburgh gets a return on its investment from the success of CMU alumni around the world.

Syracuse is taking aim at immediate gratification, putting the talent to work before they graduate. More students might stay because of the strong relationship with the host community. Those who still leave have enriched Syracuse.

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