Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Chicago And Economic Convergence

Last November, I was in San Antonio as a presenter at a Texas CEO Magazine Enlightened Speaker Series event. Rackspace chairman Graham Weston, via his 80/20 Foundation, commissioned me and Richey Piiparinen to study San Antonio talent migration. Over breakfast, I shared with the audience our preliminary findings. Weston's reaction:

“Going into it, I thought the data would show we were losing brain power and we were experiencing a brain drain,” Weston said. “As it turns out, San Antonio is a prosperous and exciting place.”

Rather than building from a declining foundation, Weston sees San Antonio building from strength. “Especially when considering all the other cities in the country – the ones that are struggling with unemployment, and we’re not; those struggling with foreclosures, which we’re not; ones that are struggling with keeping their young people and keeping their college educated children, and we are not,” observed Weston.

Of the top 100 metros in the U.S., San Antonio ranks as number six in brain gain – those over the age of 25 with a bachelor’s degree or advanced degree who have moved to the city. To realize the full potential of a talent economy, as Pittsburgh has done, San Antonio will need to produce talent. “It shows you how important our universities are and how the decades ahead are so important to rise to even greater promise. We have to have an educated population and this is an invitation to all the universities in town to up their game,” observed Weston.

Weston has a lot at stake in the brain gain – Rackspace hired about 800 employees in 2012 and tends to focus on recruiting people to San Antonio because Rackspace cannot fuel that growth purely from the San Antonio population. “What I’ve learned is,” said Weston, “the idea of return migration is a more powerful and better long term approach because we know when we find people in Silicon Valley, New York or D.C, if they have a tie to Texas there’s a very good chance we can recruit them.”

Weston said talent must be grown at home. “We can’t recruit our way to greatness.”

Emphasis added. I talked about the convergence of the Innovation Economy and the divergence of the Talent Economy. As a regional economic development imperative, talent production is replacing talent attraction. But that doesn't mean talent attraction is no longer important. San Antonio is heavily reliant on the talent development prowess of Washington, DC.

I've taken to contrasting DC and Chicago in order to understand how talent migration patterns are shifting. In terms of development, DC has supplanted Chicago as the #2 city in the United States. I wouldn't be surprised to see, in the near future, DC challenge the prowess of New York City on that score. The strong connectivity with DC is a great economic asset for San Antonio. That said, Chicago is still a prize.

For all the talk of Chicago's decline, the city remains a magnet for college-educated workers. DC is catching up, as opposed to Chicago falling back into the pack.With the recent trend of return migration, I'd say that Chicago's talent churn is improving and there's considerable upside to the exodus. Regardless, Chicago's brain gain does not appear to be abating.

Something I haven't discussed is how the convergence of the Innovation Economy can benefit Chicago. Knowledge production no longer begins and ends with Silicon Valley. The world is getting flatter:

Chicago isn't flyover country anymore, says AOL founder Steve Case, who now runs Revolution Ventures.

Mr. Case says his Washington, D.C.-based venture fund eventually expects to make 80 percent of its investments outside Silicon Valley in places such as Chicago, where he's already invested in BenchPrep, an online test-preparation service.

“Silicon Valley will remain the cornerstone of the entrepreneurial economy and a magnet for talent,” Mr. Case said Monday in a call with reporters. “But what we're starting to see, and will see, accelerate is this regional 'rise of the rest.' ”

The "rise of the rest" is convergence. More metros will compete for the best talent. That's why I recommended to San Antonio better talent production. That's why I'm bullish on Pittsburgh and bearish on Portland. The talent production strategy can work as long as there are places for graduates to go, like Chicago. Few cities do a world class job of developing talent.

If Chicago is to reinvent itself yet again, then the leadership must understand the city's position in the Talent Economy. Brain drain (i.e. return migration) is economic development, an asset for Chicago. Talent moving back to Des Moines or Krakow is not a zero sum game.

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