Reverse Brain Drain: When Southerners find their way North

When Lebron James played his first game as an ex-Cav in Cleveland earlier this month, he was booed by 20,000 aspiring brain-drain border guards still upset about his decision to take his talents to South Beach… and out of Ohio.  Ironically, the native Clevelanders I heard complain about this most were actually ex-pats who had taken their talents to Chicago years before.  In doing so, they’d followed a well-worn path out of northeast Ohio – one so commonly understood that it could be invoked last year without any real explanation in those viral “Cleveland Tourism” videos.

As blogs like Burgh Diaspora rightly and routinely point out, “brain drain” is a canard when framed simply as a fear about talented native young people leaving a city.  The aim of cities like Cleveland and Pittsburgh should be to attract migrants from elsewhere to bring in new talent, not to fret about their own citizens migrating elsewhere.  “Rust Belt Chic” shows how young people are already moving to the region to arbitrage the rust belt’s cheap costs of living and the often hidden economic opportunities.

At the risk of comparing myself to Lebron James, my own migration inversely mirrors his: I’m a Floridian from Boca Raton (and, full disclosure, a Miami Heat fan since 1988!) who first came to Pennsylvania to do my Ph.D. at Penn State, then spent a few years teaching English literature in Illinois, and finally decided to make a career change and to make my home in Pittsburgh.

I chose Pittsburgh in large part because I was attracted to its cheap rents, its beauty, walkability, and culture, and its vibrant higher-ed and non-profit sectors.  Right around my arrival in Pittsburgh, census data showed that the city’s population grew in 2010 for the first time in years.  Sometimes I like to fantasize that I was the immigrant that put it over the top.

My family still lives in Florida and they generally think I’m crazy for living in a place where it snows.  They sometimes explain their original migration from Lexington, Kentucky to south Florida with a story about trading winter weather for sunshine and seashores, but in truth it was about taking their talents to a region whose growing economy afforded them more opportunity.

Of course, the Heat are just 9-8 after 17 games and Lebron’s having the worst season of his career.  Despite several promising interviews, I’m still looking for a job two months after moving to Pittsburgh.  It will take time to get the fit just right in each case, but Lebron and the Heat will gel, I’ll get a good job (hire me!), and we’ll both flourish in our chosen cities.

And just as south Florida can flourish without me, the Cavs can thrive without Lebron if the team can focus on attracting new talent instead of perpetually mourning what’s departed. Perhaps the Cavs can leverage the amazing support Clevelanders have shown for the team this season into attracting other talented players, building a more balanced team as Cleveland itself now strives for a more diversified, vibrant, and creative economy: the kind of place that imports new talent.

Like trade, migration should not be imagined as a zero-sum game with a winner coming at the expense of a loser.  Instead, we should be thankful that migration enables the free exchange of different ideas, talents, and skills in a way that enriches everyone.  Against the border guards who’d like to do everything in their power to hold talent hostage (or who’d like to squander money creating strange incentives to keep people from moving), we should celebrate the fact that immigration and emigration can benefit cities on both sides of the equation.   Places like Pittsburgh or Cleveland shouldn’t lament the exodus of talented people but instead should welcome talented migrants from Florida and elsewhere.

This post was contributed by Pittsburgh resident Kelly Innes. Welcome!!

1 Comment

Filed under Brain Drain, Headline

One response to “Reverse Brain Drain: When Southerners find their way North

  1. What helped turn NYC from a post-apocalyptic urban wasteland in the 1970s to a vibrant, economically diverse city was foreign and domestic migration – the people who moved into the city from around the world to work, start businesses, and try out new ideas.

    The out-migration of most post-industrial cities has slowed to a trickle. The trick is attracting newcomers and “rebounders”. Places like Baltimore, Pittsburgh, Cleveland and the like should be doing everything possible to market themselves and create incentive programs to increase their population. This is really the foundation for attracting new jobs and building a market for desirable retail and other urban amenities.

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