Region’s ‘brain drain’ mostly a myth
The Pirates will never win another pennant, nobody wants to shop Downtown and young people are deserting the Pittsburgh area in droves.
At least one of these local laments is wrong.
New census data show that despite widespread worries, the region’s 25- to 34-year-olds moved out at a relatively low rate during the late 1990s, compared with other metropolitan areas.
The real problem is this: While Southwestern Pennsylvania doesn’t lose lots of young people, it attracts even fewer.
The region lost an estimated 19 percent of its young population between 1995 and 2000, according to a Pittsburgh Tribune-Review statistical analysis of census forms filled out by current and former residents of 28 U.S. metro areas.
Columbus, Seattle and Raleigh all lost bigger shares. Atlanta lost 25 percent. Washington, D.C., lost half. But all those places did a better job than Pittsburgh at bringing in fresh blood to keep the coffeehouses and health clubs clicking.
Locally, the influx of young people over the latter half of the 1990s amounted to a relatively paltry 14 percent boost in the young adult population — not enough to keep up with the outflow rate. It was the lowest rate of newcomers among all 28 metro regions the Trib examined.
That anemic tide of reinforcements — not some mass exodus of natives — caused the total number of young people in the Pittsburgh area to drop by about 14,000 over five years.
Because young professionals move more than any other group, they are key to population growth. If they won’t come, it could signal a job market stuck in the doldrums.
Census data show that in nearly all career fields — blue-collar, white-collar, professional, managerial — recent ex-Pittsburghers outnumber new Pittsburghers. For example, between 1995 and 2000, more than 10,000 health care workers left Greater Pittsburgh, compared with about 6,000 health care workers who moved here.
Yet too many local leaders keep looking at the wrong side of the equation, said Richard Florida, author of “The Rise of the Creative Class,” a national best-seller on how cities can attract young professionals.
“What Pittsburgh really needs to do is get its eyes away from retaining its young people, or from trying to get back the ones who have already left, and it has to become the kind of place people around the country want to come to,” said Florida, the Heinz professor of economic development at Carnegie Mellon University.
For some, it already is that kind of place.
High school teacher Diego Sharon, 32, decided last year that he was tired of moonlighting nights and weekends to support his family in suburban San Francisco. His wife, Christine Eaton, wanted to quit her job and stay home to raise their two young children, but that wasn’t an option in the outrageously expensive Bay Area.
They started looking for a livable city. They checked out Albuquerque, N.M., Portland and Madison, Wis.
Then they visited Pittsburgh for a family reunion. Christine’s 90-year-old grandmother once lived in Ligonier, and the family brought her back to see her elderly sisters.
That settled it. Sharon took a job teaching at City High, a new Downtown charter school, and they moved in July.
His West Coast friends mock him. They say he traded paradise for pollution. Then, he said, they see snapshots of the house in the Mexican War Streets he’s planning to buy, hear what he’ll be paying, and the envy sets in.
“We’re full-on spokespeople for Pittsburgh now,” Sharon said.
Irishman Paul Waters, 28, moved here this month for a job at a Downtown computer firm. His father told him his ancestors worked in the mills here. Waters plans to look for their graves.
“It’s funny, history repeating itself,” he said.
Actually, not quite.
The city’s industry was forged by Waters’ people, along with Slovaks, Hungarians and others from abroad, but those days are gone. Only 11 percent of newcomers here are immigrants, a smaller share than in any of the 27 other cities the Trib examined.
Christopher Briem, a regional economist at the University of Pittsburgh Center for Social and Urban Research, said Pittsburgh couldn’t compete with record-low unemployment rates and hot job markets in the South and West in the late ’90s.
But with the dot-com bust and slow economy, Pittsburgh now stacks up better against the Atlantas and San Franciscos, Briem said. He said since 2000, the number of incoming workers finally has caught up to those moving out.
“I think we’re at a crossroads of what Pittsburgh was and what it will be, but clearly things are not as negative as people think,” Briem said.
Briem and Florida both say Pittsburgh needs to promote itself more to outsiders, especially to overcome the persistent misconception of smoke-belching steel mills still lining the riverfronts.
It’s not an original idea. People have been working at remaking the city’s image at least since the building boom of Renaissance II 20 years ago. That drew national attention, and the 1985 title of America’s “Most Livable City.”
But the spate of good press didn’t dispel the bad images.
Citing that disparity, a group called the Image Gap Committee held several community forums and spent $200,000 this year to come up with a new “strategic mission statement” for marketing the region.
Their result was widely panned for being vague and unmemorable: “Accomplishment through connected individuality — linking vital individuals, vital communities and vital resources.”
Former TV newsman Bill Flanagan, who helped oversee the project as chief spokesman for the Allegheny Conference on Community Development and related regional agencies, said groups like his don’t have the money for a national advertising campaign.
Instead, they are targeting the “low-hanging fruit,” Flanagan said. For example, the Pittsburgh Regional Alliance is wrapping up a promotional CD-ROM that local companies can give to outsiders they want to recruit.
Last year, Flanagan helped oversee the “boomerang initiative,” which printed and distributed 750,000 postcards locals could send to former Pittsburghers to try to persuade them to come back.
The results were not overwhelming, with just “dozens” of former residents responding. But sponsors covered most of the project’s costs, Flanagan said, and it “got the word out.”
Bold steps will help Pittsburgh stand out, Florida said.
Pittsburgh should wrap itself in the silk-screened mantle of native son Andy Warhol and embrace him as a cornerstone of a rebranding strategy, Florida said.
For starters, name the airport after him, he said.
“But we can’t embrace Andy Warhol because he was weird and iconoclastic. Can you imagine Barcelona treating Picasso this way?” Florida said.
Grand gestures aside, word-of-mouth can’t hurt either.
Toronto native Jessica Lee, 25, said she never expected to live here. But she took a job Downtown as a paralegal in 2000 after graduating from Penn State University.
Lee said the social scene discouraged her at first. So she joined the Pittsburgh Asian American Young Professional Organization and started networking. Earlier this month, the organization went whitewater rafting with a sister group from Washington, D.C.
“They were surprised that we had a group like that,” Lee said. “Maybe if the word gets out that there’s stuff like that here … people will start wanting to move to Pittsburgh.”
About the analysis
For this analysis, the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review used the 2000 Public Use Microdata Sample, a 1 percent sample of the census long forms mailed to one in six U.S. households in 2000. The comprehensive data are the most detailed information available from the recent census. Names, addresses and municipalities are omitted to protect privacy.
With statistical software, the Trib analyzed more than 300,000 long forms from 28 metro areas, including more than 10,000 forms from current and former southwestern Pennsylvania householders.
In some cases, PUMS data use metropolitan areas slightly different from the standard ones. In this story, the Pittsburgh region refers to Allegheny, Beaver, Butler, Fayette, Washington, Westmoreland, Greene and Lawrence counties.
The Trib’s analysis is an early look at the movement of young adults in America. The Census Bureau plans to release its own report on the migration of young, college-educated singles sometime next month.