Tuesday, June 3rd, 2008

Rethinking Brain Drain

Two separate but related articles on the topic of brain drain prompted me to revisit this matter. The first is out of Indiana [dead link], where local leaders are encouraged that 80% of top high school students in the state elect to attend college in state. For those who go out of state, fully 90% don’t come back after graduation. The second is out of Ohio [dead link], where there is lament that top students aren’t staying in state for college. This different take appears to be partially a matter of spin, as 84% of all college bound seniors in Ohio stayed in state for school.

Both of these states appear to hold the view that the key to attracting talent for the 21st century economy and eliminating the so-called “brain drain” is to retain its home grown youth. I disagree. It is not necessary, or in fact even necessarily desirable, to retain your college educated youth.

My first reason is that there are actually very good reasons to want your children to leave the place they grew up. There’s certainly a matter of tastes and preference here, so you can’t appeal to logic for a complete solution. There’s a certain tension between the value of “experiences” versus the value of “rootedness”. I am someone who falls firmly to the experiences side of the ledger. I agree with Duke Leto Atreides from David Lynch’s film adaptation of “Dune”, who said, “Without change, something in us sleeps, and seldom awakens.”*

But beyond purely values, it doesn’t strike me that in an ever more complex, diverse, globalized economy, a place’s best competitive interest is served by having a city full of people who’ve never lived anywhere else.

Letting your young people leave doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to say goodbye to them forever. After they’ve had their fun in the big city or traveled the world they can always come home again. What’s more, even if they don’t, these are your ambassadors to the world at large. Colleges and employers have long recognized the value of a strong alumni network. Countries like India have benefited enormously from connections to their diaspora communities. I am dumbfounded that no city or state has really tried to do anything like this.

I’m not going to say that states should actively kick out their young people. But having 100% of them stick around isn’t a good thing.

The concept of “brain drain” is a framing device that is metaphorically flawed in the first place. It implies that every community is endowed with a some fixed reservoir of talent, like a gigantic water tank or something, and that talent drains away out of some leak or valve at the bottom. Patch the leaks and suddenly your problems are solved, and you can maximize your fixed talent pool. This is as crazy as the wages fund doctrine.

As Indiana University economist Morton Marcus noted, the problem with the so-called brain drain isn’t brain outflow, it is the lack of brain inflow. Cities like New York, London, San Francisco, etc. didn’t build their talent bases on retaining the best of their home grown talent. They did it by hoovering up the best of everybody else’s home grown talent. The challenge facing cities in the Midwest (outside Chicago and a select few other places) is how to attract and retain people who don’t have roots in the community. Beyond retaining your own home grown talent and re-attracting your home grown talent that left after school, there is an essential third leg of the stool, and arguably the most critical: attracting other people’s talent. This is, unfortunately, an essential element that all too few cities have a strategy for addressing. And in fact, most of them have implicit strategies that are hostile to it.

I suggest that we need to have a new concept to replace the “brain drain” frame. Perhaps ” net brain flow” or “net talent flow” is the right way to think about it. Like net migration in population stats, this measures college grads (or your marker of choice) in minus college grads out. Figure out how to get your inflow up high enough and all of a sudden you won’t be concerned about outflow so much and can move on to treating those who moved away as an asset instead of the “one that got away”.

* If anyone knows where this quote actually originated, I’d love to know it.

Topics: Demographic Analysis, Economic Development, Talent Attraction

4 Responses to “Rethinking Brain Drain”

  1. Anonymous says:

    Richard Florida already measured this in “Flight of the Creative Class.” The only difference is that he looked on a national scale relative to other countries.

    What’s interesting to me is that I’ve previously seen “brain drain” in Indiana discussed at the college level instead of high school. Here, I think it actually works or makes sense. Take Purdue for example. A large, internationally-renowned school in the sciences and engineering (among other things) who consistently recruits top national and international students to its campus. The problem is giving these people jobs after they graduate, which happens to fit into the discussion of bringing high-tech, high-paying jobs to the state.

  2. John M says:

    Dead-on. I recall having this discussion with someone four years ago when Mitch Daniels was running for governor. In a commercial, he decried the brain drain, but the punch line was something like “when we have grandchildren, we hope our kids can live close by.” I have enough confidence in Mitch’s intelligence to believe that he knows better, but the commercial made me cringe. As you note, it’s natural for a certain percentage of young people to want to move away. It’s natural everywhere, let alone a place like Indiana, which I love, but which doesn’t have mountains, oceans, or big city glamour. It’s not about keeping native Hoosiers “down on the farm.” It’s about appealing to college grads from elsewhere so that we can more than offset the natural movement of the natives.

  3. Jim Russell says:

    Policies designed to mitigate the brain drain of high school AND college graduates are misguided, perhaps even useless.

    Concern about human capital leaving a region is one of the most glaring flaws in the Richard Florida enterprise. I think his Mobile vs. Stuck dichotomy is much more instructive.

  4. Deuteronomy says:

    Several years ago I read a think-tank’s report that Indiana was one of the most successful “brain banks” in the country. (If I had more time I could probably find the URL if it still exists.) In referring to a brain bank, the article said that only the states of Massachusetts and North Carolina were more successful at luring a population from a diversity of other states (and countries) to its institutions of higher learning. Empirical evidence would suggest this is report is accurate: aside from the extreme international presence at Purdue, Indiana University distinctly has a cosmopolitan feel, and IUPUI is no slouch at pulling in a respectable share of students looking for a good education on a tighter budget. The article made minimal reference, however, to fact that Massachusetts and North Carolina are supremely better than Indiana at retaining those students after graduation from college. (Though perhaps that is the point of a “brain bank”–one invests in the state until he/she meets the desired return, then withdraws.) It’s an interesting premise that I think is worthy of far more exploration, and has much more to do with economic viability than the facile “brain drain” arguments that bemoan the fact that native Hoosiers leave Indiana after college. After all, native Hoosiers are also far more likely to return to Indiana than out-of-staters, after working or studying for a time in other states or countries. The IBJ just released a somewhat snarky article as well (by Norman Marcus) that isn’t particularly informative, but it does reveal that nearly 70% of people living in Indiana were born there, compared to about 60% for the national average. Marcus agrees that this isn’t necessarily a bragging point for the Indiana economy.

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