Sustained Outrage

Charleston’s brain gain?

Richard Florida published an interesting piece, “Where the Brains Are Going,” over at The Atlantic this week, which noted that several aging Rustbelt cities have apparently started gaining adults with college degrees after previously experiencing losses, or a so-called “brain drain.”

Florida explains:

Cities and regions across America and the world have made significant efforts to attract and retain young college graduates over the past decade or so. This has been driven by growing awareness that the ability to attract human capital, as well the ability to attract companies, plays a key role in economic competitiveness. And since young adults are the most mobile members of the population — people in their mid-20s are three to five times more likely to move than middle aged folks — the ability to attract them early in life can pay big, lasting dividends.

A new study by Brookings demographer William Frey examines trends in the migration decisions of young adults and college grads (as separate groups) over the years 2007-2009. His findings are especially interesting and relevant, since they cover the period since the onset of the economic crisis and reset.

The economic crisis has caused a significant decline in migration, with the mobility of Americans hitting record lows. Young adults and college graduates are no exception, Frey finds, with a growing number of them staying put or moving back with their parents. That said, the mobility of both college grads and young adults remains considerably higher than for Americans as a whole, according to Frey’s analysis.

Frey’s study, which provides a broader view, notes that overall migration has declined to its lowest rate since America began tracking it in 1948.

While there is some debate about how accurately the survey documents the timing of this decline, there is no doubt that the last three years have seen a plateau in migration for interstate moves and, in fact, total moves.

The stall has affected college graduates and young adults—groups usually among the most mobile and coveted—which tend to be the lifeblood of the labor force and responsive to shifts in national job networks. Between 2008 and 2010, the annual interstate migration of this group fell to 2.1 percent, well below the levels of 3 percent and above earlier this decade and in the 1990s. This is indicative of young adults encountering a brutal job market, as many double up or remain at home with their parents or other families. The annual migration rate for adults aged 25 to 29 fell to 3.2 percent in 2009–2010, also an historic low point for this usually highly mobile group.

Consequently, according to Frey, big cities like New York, Boston, Los Angeles and Chicago have seen a reduction in their losses of college educated adults, while cities like Pittsburgh, Columbus and Baltimore have actually seen losses become gains.

This got me thinking: What about Charleston? The Charleston Area Alliance launched Generation Charleston in 2006, an initiative that, according to their website, “strives to attract and retain young professionals to the region, while focusing on fostering the next generation of leadership. Young talent is the future intellectual capital of any economy, and the Charleston Area Alliance is committed to creating both an economy and community that is and will be attractive to this group of professionals.”

I’m not quite sure how Frey calculated his migration figures, so I’m going to use a much clumsier metric. Using information from the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey, specifically, the “educational attainment” data, I compared figures from the years 2005-2007 and 2007-2009, the same periods Frey used.

In 2005-2007, 19.7 percent of Charleston’s population 25 and older had a bachelor’s degree or higher. For 2007-2009, that number grew to 20.9 percent.

Well, is this a significant bump, or does it reflect a larger trend?

Over the same two periods, the national percentage for the same age group went from 27.0 percent to 27.8 percent. For all of West Virginia, it grew from 16.9 percent to 17.3 percent. Just for fun, I also looked up the numbers for Morgantown, which went from 27.7 percent to 28.1 percent.

And since Florida concluded that the aging Rustbelt cities were benefiting from the migration slowdown, let’s include some of our larger neighbors, too.

Pittsburgh grew from 27.2 percent to 28.2 percent, Columbus went from 31.8 percent to 32.9 percent and Baltimore went from 33.0 percent to 34.3 percent.

Charleston’s positive growth of 1.2 percent is more in line with Pittsburgh (1.0 percent), Columbus (1.1 percent) and Baltimore (1.3 percent) than it is with national (0.8 percent) and statewide (0.4 percent) trends. This suggests that Charleston may be experiencing the same kind of rebirth that Florida wrote about.

While clearly the economic crisis has caused more young people to stay put in these locations, two other factors have influenced this shift. On the one hand, many of these regions have made long-term efforts to transform from industrial to knowledge-driven economies, which we know from the experience of greater Boston and other places take the better part of a generation to take hold. On the other hand, some of these cities and regions have also been at the forefront of efforts to develop strategies to make themselves more open and attractive to young college graduates, and these strategies may be starting to pay dividends.

It’s abundantly clear that the economic crisis and Great Reset have caused mobility — long a hallmark of the American economy — to stall, making it harder for both individual workers and local economies to adjust to new economic conditions. According to Frey’s research, it has slowed the long-running flow of younger people and college grads to the Sunbelt, tilting the landscape of talent retention and attraction toward larger cities and metros, while reinforcing the position of tech centers and quality-of-place destinations like Austin, Raleigh-Durham, Seattle, the Bay Area, Denver, and Portland. At the same time, it appears to have put older Rustbelt metros back on the talent map, with some like Pittsburgh actually registering real gains.

Certainly the housing crisis and the ongoing economic transformation has played a role, but it also suggests that the longer-run efforts that these communities have been making to transform their economies, as well their more recent strategies to upgrade their quality-of-place and in general improve their ability to compete for young talent may well be paying off. And that is very good news.

But before we get carried away, the numbers aren’t all good for Charleston. While numbers grew nationwide for adults with college degrees or higher aged 25 to 34 (29.0 percent to 30.7 percent, +1.7 percent) and aged 35 to 44 (29.7 percent to 30.7 percent, +1.0 percent) and statewide 25 to 34 (20.6 percent to 21.3 percent, +0.7 percent) and 35 to 44 (18.5 percent to 19.0 percent, +0.5 percent), Charleston jumped for 25 to 34 (21.6 percent to 25.5 percent, +3.9 percent) but dropped for 35 to 44 (24.1 percent to 23.4 percent, -0.7 percent).

So maybe the young college grads are staying home, but heading out once they have a few years of experience under their belts.

Just to complete the comparison, here are figures for: Morgantown, 25 to 34 (37.4 percent to 37.3 percent, -0.1 percent) and 35 to 44 (35.2 percent to 32.0 percent, -3.2 percent); Pittsburgh, 25 to 34 (38.0 percent to 40.2 percent, +2.2 percent) and 35 to 44 (33.6 percent to 35.4 percent, +1.8 percent); Columbus, 25 to 34 (36.8 percent to 39.5 percent, +2.7 percent) and 35 to 44 (36.2 percent to 36.5 percent, +0.3 percent); and Baltimore 25 to 34 (38.6 percent to 40.9 percent, +2.3 percent) and 35 to 44 (36.7 percent to 38.2 percent, +0.5 percent). I have no idea why Morgantown is declining in both age groups, but the general trend seems to be significant gains in the 25 to 34 age group, followed by more modest gains in the next bracket.