November 5, 2007

Upstate New York Suffers Brain Drain

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With the decline of manufacturing in Upstate New York over the last century, the region has suffered a perpetual population loss. Failure to attract young, educated people has begun to put some cities in limbo, threatening their long-term sustainability. This has come to be known as the brain drain: the inability to keep educated people in the area.
Experts addressed these issues last Friday in a seminar entitled “The Brain Drain/ Brain Gain Issue in Upstate New York: Research, Education, and Outreach Responses.” A panel made up of two regional experts, a Cornell professor and one local expert dissected the issues facing Upstate New York and looked at the steps necessary to reverse current patterns.
“Some of these cities were a very proud and important part of the labor market in the 1920s. But their populations have been declining,” said Prof. Susan Christopherson, city and regional planning, to a crowd of about 30 people.
The forum started off with remarks by Richard Deitz, chief economist of the Buffalo Federal Reserve Bank, who spoke about human capital, a means of defining the amount of education in a particular area. A high level of human capital can cause growth in population and productivity.
“People without degrees earn more when they are surrounded by people with more education,” Deitz said. “This raises questions like why individuals are more productive in high human capital areas. One answer is that they gain knowledge and skills in relating to others.”
However, the level of education of Upstate New York citizens, Deitz added, is below the U.S. average. This contrasts highly with the fact that New York is well above average at producing education. A number of the speakers, including Christopherson, came to the conclusion that young people tend to attain their degrees in the region and then leave for other destinations.
Christopherson recalled the need to both keep and attract a younger crowd to the Upstate area. She recounted the results of a series of interviews she conducted with young professionals about what they want out of the region in which they live. Christopherson said that young people like a mix of urban life unavailable in many rundown Upstate cities.
A number of suggestions came out of Christopherson’s speech, including investing in urban atmosphere and infrastructure, asking local employers to provide tuition assistance for their employees’ educations, creating a unique publicity campaign and crafting programs to recognize the achievements of the younger generation.
Isabelle Andrews, project director for workforce intelligence at the New York State Association of Counties, was the next presenter. She stressed that creating a population influx starts with the jobs.
“We haven’t gotten it right,” she said. “We are not doing a good job of letting people know what jobs are out there. It’s still hard for young people to figure out where the jobs are … Young people are saying, ‘why aren’t people coming from New York State to recruit?’ They may be at Cornell, but what about SUNY Oswego or SUNY Buffalo?”
Andrews added that most of the desires of young professionals fit into two categories: “professional and social networking opportunities. It’s all about jobs and dates,” she joked.
The last presenter was Deb Mohlenhof, chair of Ithaca Forward, a networking group for young professionals in Tompkins County. She talked about some of the work that her organization has been doing to connect young people in the area.
“We are kind of a funnel,” Mohlenhof said. “We look at what has been going on in Tompkins County that young people should be involved with … Some examples include home buying, personal fiannce, career development and retirement.”
The work of Ithaca Forward, she said, is helping young people to settle in Ithaca and find others their age, which is a step towards reversing the population decrease.
“It is statistically sound that if you are connected to the community, you are less likely to leave because you are rooted there,” said Mohlenhof.
Tompkins County, while it is a victim the Upstate New York brain drain, is not at a loss for educated people. In fact, the county has almost 200 percent the national average of human capital, according to statistics provided by Deitz. Nonetheless, Cornell has been thinking ahead and planning to maintain this level of education in Ithaca by bringing in new professors.
“For a number of years, [Cornell] has been working to replace retiring faculty,” Christopherson said. “As a result of these efforts and the reputation of Cornell, I’m confident that the University will be able to attract top-ranked faculty.”
However, the University’s location forces it to face some of the same issues as the rest of the Upstate area, according to Christopherson.
For example, Ithaca is not an attractive urban locale for single people, so Cornell tends to attract “conventional families with children. This negatively affects the diversity in the faculty and staff,” Christopherson said.
She added that many Cornell faculty members’ spouses have trouble finding jobs in the Ithaca area, leading to the loss of a number of highly qualified people.
“One way to address this problem is to encourage small business development in Tompkins County,” Christopherson said. “We need to be a leader in supporting entrepreneurship and fostering small businesses.”
The forum, was organized by the Community and Rural Development Institute for people doing research on the brain drain issue. The room, however, was nearly devoid of young people — the demographic on which most of these issues focused. Christopherson expressed the need to have a similar seminar in a more accessible place so that young professionals of Ithaca could have input on the subject.