Monday, May 11, 2009

Rust Belt Brain Drain

The idea for creating a diaspora network for Greater Youngstown stems from my investigation of the brain drain in Western Pennsylvania. My father was an engineer for General Electric in Erie, PA. Looming layoffs drove my family first to Schenectady, NY and then Burlington, VT. Most of my relatives made the more typical out-migration, ending up in cities such as Charlotte, NC. While the exodus of what almost amounts to a generation of workers has abated, Rust Belt expatriates such as myself still feel a deep attachment to our hometowns and are the pioneers of a nascent movement to revitalize America's urban frontier (hat tip Rust Wire):

It's tough for some folks to understand that many of us want to be here. We didn't end up here by inertia or lack of vision or better options. We're educated and mobile; we can live anywhere. We choose to stay -- or to return.

That is the case for my husband and I and many Generation Xers and Yers who are committed to Metro Detroit and the Rust Belt, even as the region struggles to get through this extraordinarily difficult economic crisis.

We return because we love the people and the culture. We stay because we're proud of our roots, of who we are. We're not naïve about this region's daunting challenges; we're choosing to tackle them. We're committed to our families and communities.

Yet we need good reasons to stay and return, too. We need our region to get a whole lot smarter about implementing new strategies to develop a global Midwest that will thrive in the global economy.

The great irony is that, compared to other cities and regions, Rust Belt natives are more likely to stay put. Furthermore, when brains leave the state, they tend to travel short distances. A common destination for Mahoning County residents is Pittsburgh. And a popular location for Pittsburgh brain drain is, perhaps surprising to most people, Youngstown. If a college graduate relocates to another Rust Belt state, is that a problem we should address?

To expand the point, consider this column in a Michigan newspaper about competing with China:

China has entered the next generation of auto technology, manufacturing affordable, reliable electric cars, to win. With the worldwide problem of greenhouse gases, climate change and depleting oil reserves, this is a race America can ill afford to lose.

At the recent Shanghai auto show, the hot car was produced in the city of Shenzhen, a modern city of more than 10 million that did not exist a quarter of a century ago, by a company few in America have ever heard of — BYD, aka “Build Your Dreams.” This company began as a rechargeable-battery maker, and now is making an assertive thrust to become a major player in the production of electric cars.

The company has attracted some significant attention with backing for its auto venture from no less an American icon than billionaire investor and Berkshire Hathaway chairman, Warren Buffet.

The Toledo Blade newspaper recently quoted Paul Lin, a manager in the company’s auto export trade, “Toledo is quite a good place. It would be a good place to set up a manufacturing site.” So, is Michigan, Mr. Lin.

Well, better a manufacturing site in Toledo than Shenzhen, right? The scale of competition is global, not regional. The brains we miss most are the ones starting companies in Silicon Valley, not the locals now working in Pittsburgh, Columbus or Indianapolis. We shouldn't worry about who is leaving, particularly when they move next door.

The game of economic development is all about attracting talent and new businesses. Those expatriates highly motivated to return are particularly valuable. This isn't brain drain so much as it is a study abroad program. But negotiating a way home isn't easy. Our job at Greater Youngstown 2.0 is to pave the way.

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