Nancy Kaffer’s column over at Crain’s Detroit Business is all about attracting college educated youth to that city, and extensively features an interview with Yours Truly. This piece is subscription only, so I thought I would restate the case here in brief.
The Logic of Talent
There are three potential sources of talent:
- “Boomerang” migration
- Net new immigration from people with no previous affiliation
The majority of Midwest talent initiatives focus on “brain drain”, which almost entirely targets retention and boomerangers. It also treats out-migration as the problem. But the problem isn’t too much outflow, it is a lack of inflow. All talent hubs, places like NYC and Silicon Valley, have large outflows of the educated. But they make up for it with inflow. Silicon Valley didn’t become a talent magnet by retaining its home grown talent. It did it by hoovering up everybody else’s home grown talent. Being able to attract people without a pre-existing connection to your city is an essential third leg of the stool, and arguably the most important.
Plus, in an ever more rapidly changing, inter-connected world, a city’s best interests are not served by being full of people who’ve never lived anywhere else. Retention strategies should focus on making sure people who want to stay have a place to do so, but that is only part of helping our citizens succeed no matter what their preferences in where to live. Like universities, cities can be recognized for being sources of great talent, and also leverage their expatriate population as an urban alumni network.
The Path to Attraction
The key is to figure out how to attract new talent, that which does not already have a pre-existing connection to a city. To do that, you need to:
- Customer Segmentation and Targeting. Figure out segments of the population to target, based on its necessity to other civic goals (e.g., life scientists for a life sciences econdev strategy), a city’s ability to successfully cater to it, other other basis. Generic strategies are hard to pull off.
- Blocking and Tackling. Make sure you’ve got the basics: safe streets, good schools, jobs, efficient and fiscally responsible local government, as well as basic amenities. This gets rid of “knockout” criteria. It’s a necessary, but not sufficient plank.
- Branding. Create an “aspirational narrative” for your city that people in your target audience can imagine themselves being a part of and wanting to be a part of. Think about the civic brand you want to promote, the associations it conjures up, and how you create stories in people’s minds around it.
- Strategy Development. Identify the type of urban landscape and environment you need to create, across every dimension, to make the narrative real.
- Execute. Make it happen – where too often things fall down.
That’s what cities as different at Portland, Houston, Charleston, and Austin did to create their own personal civic success.
Why So Few Good Talent Strategies?
Kaffer was prompted to write this column by a $500,000 study done on this subject whose recommendations were a collection of truisms anyone could have developed off the cuff. She wondered why anyone would pay for this.
There is certainly a lot of low value consulting out there. I don’t fully profess to understand it all myself. Various others have critiqued these studies as stemming from basic illegitimacy. That is, they don’t believe that the studies were undertaken with the serious goal of creating a plan. Two theories – which I should stress originate with others – are:
- Patronage. That is, civic development groups have lots of high paid staff jobs which are sinecures for the connected, and likewise the consultants benefit from political connections.
- Bread and Circuses. Many places in the Midwest really don’t have a bright future any time soon, but you can’t tell the voters that, so politicians have to gin up studies and programs to prove that something is being done and success is on the horizon. In this world, genericism is a plus since that makes the results harder to critique.
I gave these hypotheses because I thought Kaffer would find them amusing. I must say, I’m sure there is some of this in play in various places, but the people I’ve personally dealt with on the issues seem to get it. Maybe that’s because I’m dealing with cities that know what they’re doing.
My personal speculation is that this is just a hard problem to solve. Thus people are desperate for answers and like most of us who are unfamiliar with a particular problem space, are attracted to simple, easy to comprehend answers with apparently large explanatory power. Really changing the game will require complex, multifaceted solutions operating on many fronts and will require sustained commitment over time. In a place like the Midwest, big results are likely to require longer than an election cycle to see.