Better than Boston?

From last Sunday's Bits and Bytes in the P-G:
It turns out that Pittsburgh isn't the only city suffering from the oft-lamented "brain drain" -- the exodus of young talent in search of better opportunities. Boston officials, it turns out, are wringing their hands over the same issue. Believe it.

This reported back from participants in the Allegheny Conference on Community Development's recent benchmarking trip to Boston in which nearly 100 business and nonprofit leaders and a few elected officials spent three-days sizing up Boston from every angle, including education, the arts, economic development and transportation.

In its quest to capture young people, Boston struggles for different reasons than Pittsburgh. Two-bedrooms starting at $440,000 and a high cost of living, it appears, can kill a city's sexiness, even for a 24-year-old. To top it off, the tech bust of 2001 didn't help matters as the industry shrunk, shuttering firms and leaving young techies without work. Consequently, many young people relocated.

The topic sparked interesting conversations among the group, participants said, where in Pittsburgh, the big sucking sound is of young "singletons" fleeing for hipper cities with higher-paying jobs and cooler bars. As Strip District-based consultant Pat Clark said, [hearing Boston's troubles] was "kind of a freak show, bizarro world. On the whole, I'd almost rather have our problem."

This whole thing baffles me. Pittsburgh should emulate Boston? Insanity. (Not complete insanity; how about building a subway/light rail system that actually goes where people want to go?) Pittsburghers were surprised that young people leave Boston just like they leave Pittsburgh? It's what college graduates do -- and Boston has a lot of colleges. Why aren't we asking the right question? Which is: Has the extraordinary high cost of living in Boston interfered with efforts to attract and retain talented researchers, engineers, and managers? Answer -- I think -- is yes, but only somewhat. If Boston is successful enough to be worth emulating, it's been successful because of who it attracts, not because it does a better job of keeping the people it raises.

Turn that around. Has the comparatively modest cost of living in the Pittsburgh region been leveraged as a way to attract and retain talented researchers, engineers, and managers? Answer -- I think -- is yes, but only somewhat. Once again, the Allegheny Conference is stuck in "brain drain" mode.



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Pittsblog 2.0 is written by Mike Madison, a law professor at the University of Pittsburgh. Send email to michael.j.madison[at] Mike also blogs at, on law and technology. Chris Briem of Null Space drops by from time to time.

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