Saturday, January 12, 2013

Big Fish Small Pond Talent Migration

Boston twentysomethings wish the city was more like New York, alive 24/7. The silver bullets for Rust Belt cities are greater tolerance and more diversity. Portland went all in on the urbanist utopia in order to woo talent. Schemes, such as cooler urban amenities and creative place-making, to win the great brain race abound. The common theme is making your town more attractive.

I have a different approach. What if communities focused on developing people instead of place? All of the above are about developing place in order to attract/retain people. I've concluded that place-making doesn't work. Worse, it is counterproductive. We need a new theory of talent migration.

The ball got rolling once I realized that Richard Florida's ideas about tolerance and Creative Class migration didn't make sense. I've moved to and lived in a few cool cities. They were not particularly welcoming. Quite to the contrary, I found them to be downright xenophobic. I reconciled that anecdotal impression with the horror stories of making a go of it in talent attraction champion New York City. Domestic or international, migrants overcome a lot of adversity in order to succeed. Nothing would stand between them and personal economic development.

Another clue is that the biggest winners are also the biggest losers. New York's appeal to talent is above reproach. Ironically, NYC tops the list for negative net migration. Every year, thousands more leave than arrive. New York is dying. People vote with their feet. Shrinking city. All nonsense. For every college-educated person New York attracts, the metro spits out two without a degree. There is brain gain in the face of demographic decline.

College-educated people leave New York, too. Many of them return home, literally richer for the experience. New York, perhaps better than any other city in the world, develops people. That's the attraction. That's why migrants put up with all the adversity and high cost of living. It's worth it.

That said, why would anyone swap "San Francisco, Seattle and New York for the Rust Belt"?

In Detroit, so down on its luck for so long, never underestimate the sheer joy the sound of jackhammers brings. "You are seeing construction. It is pretty exciting," said Jim Xiao, a financial analyst for Detroit Venture Partners, the driving force behind the M@dison and an investor in new tech firms in the city.

Xiao, a 24-year-old who evaluates tech firms for DVP to finance, has trouble concealing his enthusiasm. He lives in one of the converted buildings nearby, socialises at the new downtown bars and has a keen sense of mission about tech's role in the city's future. "Where else in the country can you make an actual impact on a whole city when you are in your 20s?" he said.

As a former resident of Seattle and Microsoft employee, Xiao is typical of the breed of tech engineers and entrepreneurs popping up in Detroit.

Emphasis added. Big fish, small pond talent migration. People develop, not places. It isn't the urban amenities. It isn't the tolerance and diversity. You don't move to Detroit to live out your Portland fantasy on the cheap. You certainly don't leave Seattle in hopes of a place-making upgrade. You migrate for opportunity, despite the challenges and the warts. Detroit offers something that New York does not.

Xiao's migration doesn't make any sense in a Creative Class context. Swapping Seattle for Detroit doesn't lend itself to a spikier world. Seeking geographic arbitrage isn't an indicator of agglomeration. It's a sign of economic convergence. Sticking with the "New Geography of Jobs" terminology, talent is moving from a thick labor market to a high-risk locale. The rationale is difficult to fathom in a place-centric world.

Talent is slamming into a ceiling in the thick labor market metros. They can find a better return on their skills in Rust Belt cities such as Detroit. Each migration is a brain gain. In a people-centric world, there is no brain drain. Talent attraction and retention are of no consequence. Place-making, in its current incarnation, is a waste of resources.


CityBeautiful21 said...

"Every year, thousands more leave than arrive. New York is dying. People vote with their feet."

You have some interesting things to say but this portion of your narrative is just patently false.

New York City has fixed borders and has added the population of roughly 2 and 3/4 Pittsburghs since 1990.

Within the combined 5 boroughs, NYC has never had a larger population than it does today. And yes, they are gaining people without degrees. And that is partially because there is a baby boom going on in Manhattan, and those children all arrive uncredentialed.

The big fish/small pond talent migration hypothesis is interesting, and I think valid.

Instead of misrepresenting NYC and its differential opportunities from the Rust Belt, your time pursuing this issue would be better spent trying to figure out how *LARGE* in raw numbers the big fish/small pond talent move is on an annual basis compared to small-or-big-fish/big pond talent migration.

If that movement is in fact significant in terms of numbers, that's data that economic developers can work with and actually craft strategies around. Good luck.

Jim Russell said...


My comment you quote is about net migration, not population change. You are confusing the two.

CityBeautiful21 said...

No, I'm saying that describing New York City as "dying" or in "demographic decline" is absurd given conditions on the ground in NYC, and that thick labor markets are not about to crumble under the weight of their "ceilings," when instead their high levels of competition naturally leave some people unhired. This condition is bad for the unhired individuals but good for the hired individuals, cities and their economies.

Given the infinite world of human preference, there will be individuals who choose the opportunities of Detroit over those of NYC. There are also those who prefer arena league football to the NFL.

Mr Xiao's story is interesting and in a city as troubled as Detroit, the question of how well and often his choices could be facilitated and replicated for the good of the city is valid.

However, what might be good for Mr. Xiao's personal preferences and career, may he be successful in all he does- is not necessarily a harbinger of some great opportunity for the city.

Quantitatively- how big is the group of people who are looking to be, as you put it- "big fish in small ponds?" And how big is that group compared to those aspiring as little fish to be bigger fish in bigger ponds?

Jim Russell said...


Qualifying demographic decline only in terms of population change is absurd. A metro that is growing population thanks to inmigration and aging rapidly is experiencing demographic decline. Demographic analysis is much more nuanced than you allow. Regardless, I'm speaking specifically to domestic net migration. Your comments about population change are a straw man.

That said, I take your point about NYC's thick labor market. I argue that the negative net migration is a sign of health. See this post about assessing Miami's brain drain:

CityBeautiful21 said...

We'll have to agree to disagree that absolute population growth compared to absolute population decline tells a different story.

I'm struggling to understand what you mean by when you say that a community with population growth via in-migration that is also aging is in demographic decline.

I'm not aware of anywhere in the Western world that isn't getting older because of long-term trends in the developed world.

While I grant you that baseline demographics in different cities will definitely show varying rates of aging, I think the megatrends towards smaller family sizes and delayed childbirth in the West are widespread enough that net in-migration or out-migration (and the influence of who is doing the migrating)is going to be important.

I read your Miami post and it is well stated; I would much rather have NYC's brain drain instead of Miami's.

I still think the size of the "big fish/small pond" seeker market should be a subject of high interest to cities/metros with relatively stable population bases.

Jim Russell said...

Pittsburgh is getting younger while a community in Florida is rapidly aging because of the influx of retirees. The usual analysis is that the city in Florida is doing better than Pittsburgh because its population is growing. Pittsburgh's isn't.

Meanwhile, Pittsburgh's workforce is growing and getting smarter. The main narrative? Shrinking city. Just looking at population change is poor analysis.