Thursday, June 3rd, 2010

The Talent Disconnect (or, Pittsburgh’s Talent Failure)

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.

Topics: Talent Attraction
Cities: Pittsburgh

39 Responses to “The Talent Disconnect (or, Pittsburgh’s Talent Failure)”

  1. let me be the first to say it:
    Aaron and Jim, come to our city! Allentown and the Lehigh Valley could use thinkers like you!

  2. Aaron M. Renn says:

    Now you’re cooking with gas!

  3. mike says:

    Some cities will stare talent already there right in the face and ignore it. I think that is a corollary to your theses.

    Usually they do this because they pigeon hole people into previous roles they have had, which usually involve not being able to view the talent operating at the next level or two up. There is also a reluctance to see the value of moving people laterally across business, social, functional disciplines.

    I think it has to do with a general disdain for the flexibility of people with liberal arts backgrounds. Historically, 1840-1940, people with success in one area and a liberal arts back ground were tapped to move to completely different challenges for the ‘insight’ they would bring. One example I recall was the fellow who built Central Park. I think he then did some logistics work for the Union Army in the Civil War and several other seemingly ‘unrelated’ things. Herbert Hoover is another example of someone whose talents were tapped in a cross-discipline way, ok minus out the Presidency thing. :-)

    Anyway, that is my corollary take on your very good article.

  4. Chris says:

    Great post. I am a startup guy in Austin and am constantly amazed how few things other cities do to attract talent. Austin is very aggressive, and although it doesn’t make everyone in town happy it does put the city in a great position for growth in the future.

    If I were running an out of favor city, I’d do everything it takes to attract talent for current & future industries. Internet/mobile, biomed, clean energy, etc. Throw money at folks. Unlock IP at universities on favorable terms. Try to compete.

    I think the problem is that a lot of government folks are encumbered by the need for “fairness” — so attempts are typically antiseptic and not effective. The more economic development people think entrepreneurially, the better off everyone will be.

  5. cdc guy says:

    Aaron, to sum up, it appears that most civic leaders practice a brand of “if you build it, they will come” talent attraction.

    Strangely enough, universities have been getting it right for the last 10 or 20 years: they target specific people (“superstars”) in specific fields and give ’em whatever it takes.

    How does one apply this notion to (let’s pick a current fad) life scientists? I don’t think a region’s attraction package can be specific/granular enough to work on an individual level. Of necessity, it has to aim at attracting a broader psychographic segment. Hence sports, arts, trails, and streetcars.

    Obviously if one has ideas in this realm, one is not going to give them away free in the blogosphere. :)

  6. Paul says:

    The principal problem is identifying entrepreneurial talent at the right stage. It is virtually impossible to identify talent earlier, and at the later stage it is identifiable, that talent is less willing to move, particularly to an economically depressed area.

  7. David says:

    If “talent” was enough to turn around a local economy, I’d still be living in my hometown of New Haven, CT, which is filled with educated people. You need to recruit specific companies first. The last thing we need is some Great Lakes region to repeat Michigan’s embarrassing “cool cities” campaign in an attempt to win over kids with engineering degrees.

    Pittsburgh has the same problem as New Haven. Smart university kids all moving away. And both have decent bars, condo/loft areas, lifestyle stuff for 25 year olds, not to mention well-known colleges. Problem is they are terrible places to do business, and both have jumped on the severely overcrowded life sciences bandwagon.

    If I’m running the Pittsburgh econ dev group, I’d let everyone know the place is the center for industrial robotics, or some other CMU-developing industry, and really get known for that specific area. But they’ve fallen for the same vague “talent, knowledge, life sciences” marketing gibberish that makes them indistinguishable from the 107 other places promoting the same things.

  8. Chris says:

    But David, there is a huge difference between “raw” talent and “entrepreneurial” talent. You need both.

  9. Fun article, and you make a good point. However, it seems wrong to hold Pittsburgh up to a higher standard after you just finished arguing that no city actively recruits talent.

  10. I’ve been waiting for something like this to come out in the open. I live in Cincinnati and have been watching the streetcar project and the 3-C Corridor passenger rail plan very closely. These things, among others, are all about attracting “talent” and the coveted “young professionals.” It’s a very one-sided approach however, that without thinking through the whole situation won’t end well. You can try all you want to attract talented young professionals with lively urban neighborhoods, rich transit options, and the like, but it’s all useless if they don’t have anywhere to WORK!

    It’s like the situation in Portland, where people move there just because they want to live there, but end up underemployed because there aren’t enough jobs that require their skills. This is the disconnect that needs to be fixed. I’m a 30 year old architect who’s been unemployed for 16 months now. I’m very excited to see the positive changes being made here in Cincinnati, and I really want to stay here and participate in that, but if I can’t find work then I’ll just have to go elsewhere.

    It’s not just a case that the architecture profession has been decimated by our economic troubles, but Mike above also brings up the difficulty of making lateral career moves these days. I’ve found it very difficult to explore similar jobs in related fields (urban planning, cultural resources, transit, geography, historic preservation, etc.) because of the insular nature of those different disciplines and their supporting organizations. Of course it doesn’t help that nearly every industry out there is in some sort of contraction or holding pattern at this point.

    So I’m not saying the things that many cities are doing to attract talented people are bad, but they can’t be done in a vacuum. Some of Cincinnati’s biggest companies like P&G or Federated do in fact have trouble getting and retaining talent, and revitalizing Over-the-Rhine and building the streetcar will help with that. On the other hand, aside from those two companies, the real issue is attracting jobs for talented people so they actually CAN move here, rather than just WANT to.

  11. If all a city does is recruit “talent” without finding constructive (and well-paying) uses for said talent–what’s the point? Much digital ink has been spilled about the high educational attainment among Portland’s barristas, including on this blog–but recruiting talent is difficult if you don’t have a job for such talent. (And most talent recruitment is by employers looking to hire, not by city governments looking for bright people to move to town on spec).

    For entrepreneur and capitalists–the way to recruit them is to have a “positive business climate”–which in many circles, is a nice way of saying “low taxes, low wages, lax regulations, and easy to externalize costs”. Sadly, racing to the bottom may in fact be the best way for cities to recruit capital and business savvy–especially in the absence of the cultural or political amenities (or existing talent pool) that attract money to places like New York. I’ve a good friend who is a successful IT consultant in the Portland area–and he’s now shopping for a home out of state, due to the recent passage in Oregon of ballot measures 66 and 67, two “soak the rich” initiatives. He isn’t “rich”, but he is unmarried and childless, and has an income above the cutoff. (He’s also somewhat libertarian in his political leanings, and not eager to fund the social safety net to begin with–a description which is valid for many “entrepreneurs”).

  12. Carl Wohlt says:

    Nicely said. I also find Jim’s insights to be unique and compelling.

    William Whyte once famously said about successful public spaces:

    “What attracts people most, it would appear, is other people.”

    This is probably true of cities as well in regards to talent, and why in the case of existing talent magnets, the rich get richer.

  13. cdc guy says:

    For years, Pittsburgh was successful because its rich citizens (among them the Mellons) funded new industrial businesses with proceeds of their previous successful ventures. Those growing businesses attracted a broad spectrum of people from educated engineers and managers to unskilled immigrants.

    Eventually, the venturers lost their venturing edge, and the proceeds went into banks and trust funds and houses and club memberships and philanthropy instead of new businesses.

    Silicon Valley remains successful because its rich citizens fund new businesses with the proceeds of their successful ventures. But more and more of them are sinking their fortunes into politics and philanthropy…

    What attracts the talent that creates job and economic growth seems to be investment in start-ups. Portland attracts talent, but not jobs.

  14. David says:

    “Portland attracts talent, but not jobs”

    Good point. Also why places like Seattle, Austin, and Portland got a reputation in the 90s as cities for slackers.

    Attracting talent creates hype, attracting companies creates real economic development.

  15. Aaron M. Renn says:

    Clearly there is a mutually reinforcing relationship between jobs and talent. If one or the other leads by too much, there’s a problem. Certainly, it some fields where the job market is hurting today, finding a job isn’t easy.

    However, in the case of Pittsburgh, we’ve got a city that a) has identified talents as a high priority area, b) that is no doubt investing enormous amounts of money in talent initiatives such as the ones I highlighted (I don’t know the total, but other cities/states have invested hundreds of millions of dollars, so I suspect Pittsburgh/PA is similar) c) a guy who is a leading expert in the subject, d) who probably isn’t too expensive or otherwise difficult to hire. In this case, I find it difficult to believe that all the talent attraction related jobs in Pittsburgh over the last three years went to people who were more qualified than Jim.

  16. This may be one reason why Wall Street reform is so important. Capitalists (here, I use the term to mean people who have or manage surplus capital) have generally lost interest in investing it in new ventures, and instead are focusing on other ways to make money, generally through financial shenanigans.

    One longstanding gripe with VC funds is that many of them are parochial–only willing to fund ventures in a given area. Silicon Valley capitalists are an extreme example–they are often reluctant to fund anything that doesn’t have a Silicon Valley address; even places in the region with cheaper real estate (such as the east bay) are looked at with upturned nose. Oh, and one of the principals had better be a Stanford (or Ivy League) grad, though Berkeley alumni are occasionally considered. The Chinese concept of guanxi is alive and well in much of the US, we just don’t care to admit it.

  17. Jim Russell says:

    I want to thank Aaron for telling my story. I couldn’t ask for a better venue. As a blogger, few (if any) professional publications drive traffic like The Urbanophile does. Keep that in mind the next time you lament that mainstream media isn’t paying attention to your ideas. Any newspaper, magazine, or think tank would kill for the quality audience found here.

    To contribute to the conversation, I think communities should determine if they have a population problem or a talent problem (or both). The two often get confused, by some very smart people in powerful positions. Pittsburgh is one of those cities that is shrinking but getting smarter. Thus, per capita income increases while civic debt crushes the future. There’s plenty of talent available but the city needs numbers. Desperately.

    If I’m Pittsburgh, I offer me a job only if I’m willing to live in the city. For you planners out there, I currently reside in an urban neighborhood eligible for CDBG funds. I’m helping to raise a family on the front lines of city neighborhood revitalization. I mention this personal tidbit because I know many of you reading this are in the same boat. What if Allentown decided to make you a pitch? Would you be interested in moving there?

  18. David says:

    “One longstanding gripe with VC funds is that many of them are parochial–only willing to fund ventures in a given area.”

    Chasing after VC is very 1998. Beyond SF, Boston, maybe Seattle, it is not part of any reasonable econ dev strategy. Far fewer good companies need it now, and the high fixed cost/low variable cost startups that fit normal venture investment traits are few and far between.

    Future is in raising money locally and investing it locally, bypassing brand name VCs and even the stock market in some cases.

  19. Alon Levy says:

    I don’t know how it is in medicine or other fast-growing professions, but in academia, the concept of selling a city is weak. It’s understood that an academic should search for jobs nationwide, and often internationally as well. I believe I’m a very strong postdoc applicant, and still the chance of me finding a job within ground transportation distance of where my girlfriend’s going to live is small.

    Where cities do matter in academia is in seminars and working groups. For example, there is such a thing as the New York mathematical community, centered on Columbia, NYU, and CUNY; there’s a Boston community, a Chicago community, etc. I’m not sure how important it is in the fastest-growing sciences, though; in biomed and biotech, the individual lab is often more important than the university or the city.

  20. Andy says:

    I feel like it’s necessary to point out that this post is simply anecdotal, the story of one guy, and not a representation of Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh employers, or recruitment in Pittsburgh, in any “big picture” fashion. I’m sure there are many people that have been attracted to Pittsburgh, and recruited (I know many, and in a round about way, that’s how I ended up here).

  21. Patricia Tice says:

    We have a huge group of the Pittsburgh diaspora here in Orlando (I’m married to one.) The City of Orlando thinks Richard Florida was named after our fair state… Still, I have issues with looking for “talent” in that most of what is called “talent” in our day is super young, super cocky and self-indulgent. Their culture and insights leave much to be desired–“a chasing after the wind.”

    We’ve been trying to revitalize our downtown core–added a bunch of condos and “night life” and neither are a real asset. The condo’s are largely empty and the night life adds more goth than enlightenment. Urbanites find Orlando too suburban and family oriented–that’s why the children of the steel mills live here. It’s stinky in Weirton and the other “traditional” steel towns along the Ohio. Our factories cook oranges not slag. Our skyscrapers are limited by the local airport height requirements. We can’t regularly do multiple stories or high density because the physical land can’t support it. Sand eliminates basements and water retention creates diffuse open space. I miss the basements, but a nicely designed retention pond can be an amenity.

    Who is going to seek out wise citizens who work hard, support strong social fabric and think multi-generationally? You’ll find that those communities and their businesses have much less debt so they remain stable through good times and thrive in bad times. They don’t need a hard-scape that forces connections to each other, they connect because they want to and volunteer because it is good to do so. I’ll grant that communities with this mindset don’t look all that exciting, but if you want a welcome mat you can come home to, that’s where you’ll find it. That’s where the Pittsburgh diaspora has found it.

  22. BrianTH says:

    Even assuming it is the case that some unspecified powers-that-be should have made a job for Jim in Pittsburgh (and while I like Jim’s blog a lot and agree he has some great insights, I’m in no position to judge whether that idea is actually practical), I think the implicit point many people are making above is that such an idea isn’t scalable. Instead, for the most part civic authorities have to take a supportive role in this area, meaning they have to do what they can to encourage employers to locate operations in their city, then do what they can to support those employers in their efforts to recruit and retain talent. But on the individual level, when it comes to attracting working people, I think it is obvious that the entities with the jobs to offer are going to have to take the lead.

  23. Aaron M. Renn says:

    Brian, I would encourage you to do a compare and contrast of most metros’ business attraction initiatives to talent attraction initiatives. I think you’ll find a very different view.

  24. cdc guy says:

    Jim, Allentown and cities of its history and size need a “Main Street” sort with a strong preservationist streak, not a modern urbanist. Such places have far more reverence for their history, which politically must be accommodated.

    But I would invite Aaron back to Indy if I were in a position to make it happen. Maybe Steve Goldsmith will invite him to NYC. :)

  25. pete-rock says:

    Could it be that there’s talent attraction double-speak because, deep down, city power brokers are afraid of the unintended impact of new talented residents?

    I get the sense that cities are often implicitly very specific about the kind of talent they seek. They want two things: 1) retain educated natives to reduce brain drain, and 2) attract educated outside talent whose cultural sensibilities are similar to their own.

    I just feel there’s a level of insecurity that city leadership has in many places that’s not being discussed. They want outside talent, but they don’t want to disrupt the cultural essence of their cities.

  26. Ironwood says:

    This is a thought-provoking post, Aaron.

    But two observations:

    1. Anyone’s negative experience in finding a job in the past 18 mos is probably more a reflection of These Awful Times than anything else. I’d be reluctant to draw out any implications for urban talent scouting, since, with a few exceptions, nobody’s hiring anyone anywhere for anything.

    2. To co-opt the obnoxious bromide from the NRA — “Guns don’t kill, people do”: Governments and chambers of commerce don’t hire; companies do.

    Hiring a talented professional is a $100,000-$200,000 a year commitment, once you figure in benefits, office space, etc. For a smaller company, that’s a big decision that’s going to be driven by a lot of factors that local governments have no control over. Sure, hiring decisions are influenced by public policies and actions — taxes, incentives, spending (e.g., juicy government procurement contracts, etc.). But a lot of this is at the federal level, and, to some degree the States.

    Local governments can try to create a friendly environment for local business — or at least remove some unfriendly local policies (sales tax, licensing fees, etc.) — but these are not going to ultimately drive a company’s $100,000-plus decision to make a commitment to hire a talented professional.

    Except for the above, it seems to me the most a LOCAL government can do is create an urban environment that is stimulating, safe, attractive, etc. — a place where talented people would like to live. That’s a necessary, but hardly a sufficient, condition to attracting talent.

    What else did you have in mind for local governments to be doing? Or was your point basically the same as mine — that beyond cheer-leading, local governments are pretty limited in what they can do to create jobs in the private sector?

  27. wkg in bham says:

    1. The ‘Burgh does recruit talent. Particularly big,mean defensive tackles or fast wingers with good puck handling skills. For whatever reason, it dosen’t go after infielders who can handle a bat.
    2. A sought after talent is one typically specific and marketable. Generalized talent not so much – particularly if it is at a distance. Talent that is only self-proclaimed is not sought. Some “talent” (e.g. a MFA degree) is almost a repellent.
    3. In times like these, it is safe to say that there is an abundence of under-utilized talent already in Pittsburgh.
    4. The crux of the problem is: how do we convert talent into revenue producing activity?
    5. I think Jane Jacobs book “Cities and the Wealth of Nations” (or something very close to that title)offers good guidance. In a nut-shell: import replacement. BTW this book is much better than “Life and Death…”

  28. David says:

    “how do we convert talent into revenue producing activity?”

    By stopping lame efforts at selling lifestyle benefits that are easily copied, and instead being known as the leader in one industry. Talent follows industries that are concentrated in certain cities, not d-bag bars you can find anywhere.

    NY – Finance, Boston – biotech and health, SF Bay Area – Semiconductors & Software, Pittsburgh – ???

    I’d say Pittsburgh should = robotics, but to the Pittsburgh Regional Alliance it = symphonies, cultural districts, and hiking. I can’t work at a robotics research institute in most other cities, but I can visit a “cultural district” in plenty others.

  29. Patricia Tice says:

    David, that is the most cogent thing said so far. Each area has a purpose and the better it fits that purpose, the easier their success will be. The question is a matter of utility–What can a metropolitan area contribute to the region and world? People talk about a sense of place in terms of somewhere that would make a good visual picture. Sense of place should speak more to substance–“this is the place where…” A location with a good sense of place should make filling in that blank obvious.

    We forget to look contextually at both the land itself and the regional connections and needs that can be identified. When a place has a purpose it becomes a place.

  30. Some lifestyle benefits aren’t as easily portable. Portland, for instance, offers several lifestyle benefits as part of its value proposition (to utter an overused industry buzzword), that may not be easily replicated elsewhere. Among them:

    * A wide variety of outdoor recreational abilities (beachcoming, skiing and mountaineering, windsurfing, hunting and fishing, world-class rock climbing, whitewater rafting), all within a few hours drive of the city.

    * A local cuisine, and restaurant scene, that takes full advantage of the close proximity of high-quality agriculture (meat, dairy, fruits and vegetables, brewing, winemaking)–a benefit of both having an excellent farming climate (and exceptionally fertile soils), and land-use policies that have protected agricultural lands from being turned into suburbs.

    Granted, these two things by themselves aren’t transformative of the economy, and I consider foolish any notion that these things are magic bullets that will drive the local economy in the future–but they are things which would be difficult to reproduce elsewhere, and which do have clear value to some people.

    Ironically, Portland doesn’t enjoy a top-notch cub scene or a world-class art scene. We’ve got plenty of local meat markets, and numerous artistic companies of various sorts, but none of these are world-renowned.

    Food (heh) for thought.

  31. aim says:

    Detroit business community looks to Pittsburgh for ideas on how to transform Detroit.

  32. Alon Levy says:

    If you want to see what happens to cities that specialize too much, go to Detroit.

    At any case, US cities today aren’t very specialized. Krugman had a presentation about economic geography a few weeks ago, explaining how while US cities where highly specialized a hundred years ago, this declined after WW2. What does Atlanta specialize in? What about Miami, or Chicago?

  33. Wad says:

    The decline of overspecialization has helped the resiliency of city regions. Diversification of city industries has helped in the same way diversification of assets helps in an investment portfolio.

    This still leads to some cities becoming the national or global alphas for a specific sector, but as long as there’s a broader support sector and even non-related sectors in the same area, it helps.

    New York leads in finance, yet it still maintains important shipping and warehousing functions, a fashion industry, tourism, and much more.

    Detroit was the alpha in autos, but autos ended up sucking the life out of other ventures. This is largely what happened in the Rust Belt. This imbalance does exist elsewhere, namely Nevada and Hawaii.

    Worse, a lot of the Sun Belt cities built themselves up through a monentum growth strategy. It worked in the Texas Triangle cities, Atlanta and South Florida, but in many places growth was the economy (Phoenix, California’s Central Valley and much of the South).

  34. BrianTH says:

    Pittsburgh itself provided a great demonstration of the perils of specialization with the steel bust. And robotics, while cool, isn’t likely to employ more than a small number of people.

    That said, I do think Pittsburgh needs a sense of purpose arising out of place. I actually rather like the Paris of Appalachia label, although in my experience Pittsburgh natives (I’m a transplant) tend to see it as a joke at their expense.

    But I think the basic concept is sound: between the Northeast Coast and the Great Lakes is a distinct highlands region, roughly the northeast half of Appalachia. It isn’t the biggest region, and it is lightly populated (for the eastern part of the U.S.), but Pittsburgh pretty much has that region to itself as far as major cities go.

    So, I see Pittsburgh as the de facto capital city of that region, in the same way the aforementioned Atlanta, Miami, and Chicago are the de facto capital cities of their respective regions. And that means Pittsburgh’s purpose is to provide whatever that region needs, whether those needs fall into the category of education, health, professional services, energy, manufacturing, transportation, or so on. And, yes, culture and entertainment too.

  35. Interesting.

    But what’s missing from this discussion, I think, is some discussion of the nature of “talent” and how we might expect talented people to make big life decisions.

    What do talented people want? Are they Richard Florida’s “creative class”? No, because that class includes a lot of hangers-on who serve creative talent more than they provide it. And of course, there are lots of talented people who don’t identify with the “creative class” at all.

    Could one posit that talented people are, on average, likely to make good decisions in their own lives? Could it be that talented people are pretty good at figuring out where they’ll be happy, especially when cyberspace is bursting with comparative analyses of cities, such as you often feature in your “urbanoscope”? Could it be that those who don’t respond to such metrics — the more artistically or intuitively talented types — are correspondingly skilled at sensing a vibe in a particular city on a short visit, and developing a strong impression about whether they’d do well there?

    Is there really much of a point in “pitching” your city to people who have those skills of discernment?

  36. visualingual says:

    Fascinating. Pittsburgh is a city where I might have ended up for undergrad, so I’ve always watched it from a distance, thinking that it might be a good place to eventually live. Instead, I ended up in Cincinnati, where my job-finding experience has been very much like Jim’s. Now, I’m most certainly not “one of America’s premier thinkers on talent” or anything quite so fancy, but I tend to think that I’m not chopped liver, and yet my inability to find semi-gainful employment over the past three years here has made me think that, despite Cincinnati’s stance on attracting talent, I’m being pushed out by the lack of professional opportunity. It’s interesting to hear that a similar situation exists in other Midwestern cities.

  37. John Morris says:

    No time to do an in depth comment. Several of the views here border on the absurd. The Pittsburgh region is extremely close to the D.C. mega region and represents one of the largest concentrations of elite college assets in America with formerly leading positions in rail and nuclear technology along with robotics, steel and is a central energy hub. Software, defence and healthcare can be easily added to the list.

    The general story is certainly not one of limited assets. The poor little Pittsburgh mythology is a tremendously convenient crutch. 90% B.S.

    The real story is one of underperformance and relative mismanagement. Of course, Pittsburgh’s health has always been connected to the overall health of manufacturing and specificaly the health of Ohio. (Since that’s always been the flat, centrally located land where the raw material and brains of Pittsburgh came together to make finished goods.)

    The good news is that some kind of very important cultural shift is happening in town at the grass roots level.

  38. Tom Heller says:

    Aaron wrote: “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.”

    You hit Columbus, Indiana right on the head. (A colleague in Seattle tells me you were recently through here.)

    I also see evidence here of Pete-Rock’s suggestion that “Could it be that there’s talent attraction double-speak because, deep down, city power brokers are afraid of the unintended impact of new talented residents?”

  39. John Morris says:

    “I also see evidence here of Pete-Rock’s suggestion that “Could it be that there’s talent attraction double-speak because, deep down, city power brokers are afraid of the unintended impact of new talented residents?”

    I really think this is the really big factor in so many cities that likely explains why serious talent attraction/ immigrant attraction efforts are pretty half assed and rare.

    In Pittsburgh, I think the stat is that a change in about 25,000 people would change the political landscape. Keeping current residents and kids doesn’t pose a big political risk since the chances are that most will vote like their parents did or are tied to the current system in some way. Likewise, attracting a few new subsidised businesses or developments (especially those that can’t make money on their own) also just creates more people tied to the current system.

    However, a major crowd of new people who have little previous knowledge of the area and little nostalgia for the old ways poses a huge risk to politicians and connected insiders.

    There is certainly the beginning of a war between the old and new crowd in Pittsburgh which is playing out on the blogs.

    “What these powermongers’ heavy-handed machinations reveal is a profound ignorance of — or disregard for — the city’s relatively new professional class. What that in turn portends is a powerful, painful collision of cultures straight ahead. It will come not a moment too soon.

    In fact, it’s already well under way — most visibly in the city’s popular blogs and online open forums, where disgust with these ludicrous “Old Way” decisions is aired round-the-clock.”

    It’s a little more complicated in Pittsburgh since Foundations here, which are huge powers in themselves are in many cases very conflicted between the old and new ways and are putting some new money in the hands of new players.

    Also, Pittsburgh so far has not attracted enough new people to shift the system.

The Urban State of Mind: Meditations on the City is the first Urbanophile e-book, featuring provocative essays on the key issues facing our cities, including innovation, talent attraction and brain drain, global soft power, sustainability, economic development, and localism. Included are 28 carefully curated essays out of nearly 1,200 posts in the first seven years of the Urbanophile, plus 9 original pieces. It's great for anyone who cares about our cities.

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