Thursday, June 3rd, 2010
I’m not sure how I first came across Jim Russell’s Burgh Diaspora site, but I was quickly hooked. Jim was writing about two big ideas: that Pittsburgh was on the cusp of a comeback, and “brain drain” was the wrong way to frame the talent issue.
Pittsburgh was a place I’d never given much thought to, except in noting that it was one of the rare metros with population declines, which didn’t augur well for it in my book. Jim took the view that the demographic problems were a hangover from the steel collapse and disguised the fact that Pittsburgh had hit an inflection point. Well, over three years later Pittsburgh is now a media darling and the popular poster child for a Rust Belt comeback. I’ll even dare suggest Jim played a role in building and shaping that narrative.
One of Jim’s reasons for Pittsburgh optimism was a unique asset born of the collapse: the Pittsburgh Diaspora, aka Steeler Nation. He had actually started his blog in an effort to find ways to combat the exodus from Pittsburgh, only to conclude that brain drain was a poor way to frame the problem. He then went on to explore ways diaspora talent networks could actually power a local economy, branched out into boomerang migration, immigration, and much, much more, becoming one of the premier thinkers anywhere on the geography of talent. But don’t just take my word for it. HR Examiner recently listed Jim as the #11 online talent influencer in the United States. People from all over the US, Canada, and even from overseas places like the UK have reached out to tap into his expertise. And incidentally, Jim is an honest to goodness real geographer, holding a graduate degree in the subject.
Jim actually lives in Colorado, his own situation influencing his thoughts, naturally. You might think that a guy like that is someone Pittsburgh might actually want to recruit to their team. The same idea occurred to Jim. He even when so far as to rechristen his site “Return to Pittsburgh”, dedicated to his quest to move back to Pittsburgh, and started knocking on doors and applying for jobs in Pittsburgh.
No one would hire him.
DeWitt Peart, president of the Pittsburgh Regional Alliance said of one of his signature projects, “This is a talent initiative. We need to find a way to fill the talent pipeline in this region … if someone is looking to relocate, we think Pittsburgh is better off than a lot of other regions.” Peart went on to claim there were 30,000 open jobs just waiting for people to want to come to Pittsburgh. Audrey Russo, president of the Pittsburgh Technology Council, said, “As a region we are plotting many different strategies to figure out what’s going to ‘work’ to attract and retain businesses and talent…I think we have a very intriguing value proposition to offer anyone who is looking to relocate.” But does Pittsburgh’s reality match its leaders’ words?
Like most cities, Pittsburgh obsesses over talent – or so they say in public. Practically every civic initiative is framed at least partially as about attracting talent. But what happened when talent came knocking? Here was a guy with manifest skills in an area they themselves viewed as critical to the regional future, and someone who probably could have been hired fairly easily. Jim is motivated to live in Pittsburgh and if the city was willing to actually implement some of his ideas that would probably have meant more to him than money or a fancy title. So it’s not like it would have been hard to find something valuable for him to do. The fact that no one in Pittsburgh would hire one of America’s premier thinkers on talent speaks volumes about that city and how far it needs to go. Duly chastened after more than six months of trying, Jim’s site is back to being Burgh Diaspora now, though he is still a tireless champion for the Steel City.
But perhaps Pittsburgh shouldn’t feel too bad. I’ve noticed an enormous disconnect between what people say about talent and what they do. I’ve yet to find even one city that is an aggressive recruiter of talent. There are lots of initiatives that supposedly target talent, but few of them have much to do with actual talented people.
I’m continually befuddled that despite the enormous sums spent on talent and brain drain initiatives, almost nobody seems to ever try recruiting anyone. It’s like there’s a belief talent is some ethereal substance that wafts in on the winds if you put up a slick web site or something. But talent exists in actual human beings. Talent is people, real people. Just like with a business and employees or a university and students, cities need to actually recruit them – but they don’t.
Through my writing and travels, I’ve met a lot of people, including many senior civic leaders. I’m always watching to see if they will pitch me on their city. Not that they would necessarily offer me a job, but at least try to sell their city to me as a place I might personally want to live in, as a place for me to make a home or build a career. Not one person has ever even tried. All they want is for me to write something nice about them. You can be very sure they pitch that idea aggressively – very aggressively. The contrast is stark.
There’s an old axiom in sales – you have to ask for the business. Nobody out there is asking. I’m not running into too many cities that appear to be in the real business of selling themselves – or in the case of Pittsburgh even bending over to pick up the proverbial $20 bill on the ground in front of them.
For too many places places talent is like a Christmas tree ornament. It’s a standard all purpose justification used to decorate arguments for doing things that people already wanted to do. New stadium? Talent. Light rail line? Talent. Bike lanes? Talent. Art galleries? Talent. Lots of talking shop civic organizations? Talent. But does anybody really believe it? I cannot but conclude that most cities do not. They either suffer from a fundamental conceptual error, or at some level these initiatives are simply illegitimate.
As I said in a recent speech, there’s a huge opportunity in the marketplace for a city that wants to step up and actually get serious about talent. Who will it be? I hear Jim Russell is still available.
As for Pittsburgh? Sorry, Jim. You almost had me convinced.
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Aaron M. Renn is an opinion-leading urban analyst, consultant, speaker, and writer on a mission to help America’s cities thrive and find sustainable success in the 21st century.