you know where your children are?
young people in your town/city/burg complete their
college educations, where do they go? Do they come
back home, confident they can build a future there?
Or do they scatter to the four winds, seeking the
bright lights and career opportunities of cities
should come as no surprise that many young adults
– especially those who are well educated and enjoy
a broader range of employment options – decide to
see more of the world. So, here’s a follow-up
question: Once they leave, do they ever come back?
you can recount some anecdotes based on the
experience of your own kids, a nephew, a niece or
the child of a friend. But in all likelihood, you
don’t have a good handle on what’s happening to
the community as a whole. I
sure don’t, and I’ve spend a fair amount of time
reading and thinking about it.
questions I just posed sound more like the topic of
a sociologist’s Ph.D. dissertation than a subject
that local civic and political leaders would
address. But if we want our communities to prosper
in a knowledge-driven economy, in which human
capital is the most important economic resource, we
had better start getting some answers. Policy makers
can spit out basic data – average level of
education, the number of high school students
graduating this year, etc. – but they can’t tell
you who’s coming and who’s leaving, where
they’re going to and coming from, or why they’re
doing what they’re doing.
we can’t measure human capital, we can’t manage
it. By fixating on conventional economic development
metrics such as capital investment, we will miss opportunities to retain and recruit talented members
of the so-called “creative class,” the gifted
artists, scientists and entrepreneurs who drive
innovation and wealth creation in our society today.
unfortunate reality is that most communities are
losing human capital, suffering a “brain drain,”
if you will, of their brightest and best educated
youth. Rural areas, where the phenomenon is
particularly severe, have been acutely aware of the
problem for years. Virginia’s
metro areas have never grappled with the issue,
however, presumably because no one regards the
out-migration of educated young people as an source
But as it becomes increasingly evident that human
capital is the critical variable in regional
competitiveness, community leaders will be forced to
take the matter more seriously.
the 331 metropolitan areas in the United States,
only 34 show a definite brain gain, according to a
recent study by Kevin Stolarick, a professor at
Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. Another 30
metro areas are holding their own in human capital,
while the other 267 metro areas – metro areas, mind you, not rural counties
– are experiencing a brain drain!
areas notable as magnets for creative talent include
Regions suffering brain drains include Buffalo, Rochester,
according to a summary of the study published in Creative
Intelligence, a newsletter associated with
the Richard Florida Creativity Group. Florida,
The Rise of
the Creative Class,
has documented a strong link between the
presence of the "creative class" and
economic performance. (The
newsletter did not specify the performance of any
core thesis is that the U.S.
is in the midst of a massive migration of talented
and creative people to communities that provide the
career prospects, lifestyles and ambience in line
with their personal priorities and
values. Winning regions – those
that succeed in retaining and attracting creative
people – will prosper. Losers will stagnate
to Stolarick, there are two aspects to the migration
of human capital: (1) a region’s ability to retain
members of the creative class, in particular those
who are educated locally; and (2) the ability to recruit
creative people from elsewhere. His “Brain
Gain/Drain Index” compares the percentage of the
workforce (25 and above) with at least a
bachelor’s degree to the percentage of the
population currently attending college. A value
greater than 1.0 indicates that the region is doing
a good job of keeping its graduates and attracting
those from other places. A value of less than 1.0
suggests that the region is exporting talent.
Brain Gain/Drain Index is fascinating as a
conversation starter, but it does have limitations.
Most obviously, as Stolarick himself concedes, it punishes regions, like Boston and North
Research Triangle, blessed with strong universities!
A college town can get a lower score because
students represent a large percentage of the total
population and skew the ratio. But any reasonable
theory of economic development would deem
universities a major asset: They bring talented,
creative people into a region. Even if many of them
leave, more are likely to stay than if the
university didn't exist.
point is not to criticize
Stolarick, who has made a
creditable first stab at measuring a crucial
phenomenon that no one has bothered to quantify
before. Rather, my suggestion would be to refine his
methodology, develop metrics for
major regions, and then factor the findings into the
economic development strategies of the Commonwealth
and its localities.
no sense in trying to develop a human capital
strategy until you know what the facts are. Virginia
communities need to ascertain those facts or they
will wind up basing its strategies on guesses and
hunches of dubious value.
is no commonly accepted set of metrics for defining
a region’s human capital. Here, I would suggest,
are some things that would be helpful to know.
Percentage of graduates who pursue post-secondary
As many educators note, it’s possible to
pursue a remunerative career as a technician or
tradesman without earning a college degree. But
it is equally true that the artistically,
scientifically and entrepreneurially creative
people who contribute most to economic growth
earn college degrees and, in many cases,
as talent magnets. How many students do
local colleges and universities recruit from
outside the region? Of particular interest are
the more prestigious institutions admitting the
brightest students. The University of Virginia,
Virginia Tech and the College of William and
Mary "import" between 30 to 35 percent
from other states or overseas.
of college graduates. Where do college kids
go after graduation? Do they seek jobs locally
or leave the state? Are students with certain
degrees -- business, engineering, computer
programming recruited more aggressively by
out-of-state companies and more likely to
of different life stages. Peoples'
priorities change as they advance through life:
getting married, having children, becoming empty
nesters, retiring. How open are they to
relocating at each stage? What are their
priorities, and how well do Virginia
communities match up with those priorities?
clusters. Creative people are not all the
same. They express their creativity in different
ways. Some like the symphony; others prefer jazz
clubs. Some like running on the treadmill;
others prefer hiking through the mountains. What are
the major lifestyle clusters of creative people,
and how well do they align with the
assets of Virginia communities?
adds up to a massive research project. Indeed,
there's probably fodder for a dozen sociology
Ph.D. dissertations. But it's hardly beyond the
capabilities of the social scientists and marketing
gurus at Virginia's leading universities, should
they choose to take on the project.
with solid research data, state and regional leaders
can do two things. First, they can target their
human-capital recruiting campaigns to creative
people whose life stages and lifestyle clusters best
match up with local business and
quality-of-life assets. Second, they can funnel
their public and philanthropic investments into
building assets with the greatest appeal to those members
of the creative class they most want to attract.
more to developing human capital than blindly
pouring billions of dollars into K-12 and higher
education and praying for the best. Virginia needs
to move to the next level: working systematically to
recruit and retain the best and brightest. That's
the frontier of economic development in the
knowledge economy. And if we don't get started right
away, we can be sure that our competitors will.
July 28, 2003