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'Brain drain' acute from Pittsburgh area, census shows

Exodus second highest among 276 metro areas

Tuesday, November 04, 2003

By Gary Rotstein, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

It is possible to be young, educated, single and attracted to Pittsburgh -- just not very probable.

The U.S. Census Bureau took its best stab ever at measuring "brain drain" from cities across America, and the report released yesterday appeared to provide credence for hand-wringing over the region's ability to attract skilled and creative young workers.

Of 276 metropolitan areas, only Gainesville, Fla., showed a greater net loss between 1995 and 2000 of migrating individuals who were single, between the ages of 25 and 39, with at least a bachelor's degree. Pittsburgh lost 7,444 more of such individuals than it attracted, which was 20 fewer than the hometown of the University of Florida.

The list of the worst brain drain losers was a combination of Rust Belt cities that have suffered from widespread population losses, like Buffalo, and other areas that are centers of higher education without plentiful populations and jobs, such as Bryan-College Station in Texas and Lansing-East Lansing, Mich.

In Pittsburgh's case, "we're getting hit from both ends," said Kate Trimble, director of the New Generations program of the Coro Center for Civic Leadership. With its heavy concentration of universities, the region has lots of students passing through on their way to becoming young professionals, but an insufficient number of high-quality jobs to keep them here or allow for potential in-migration of others.

"That's the most mobile group, and the group with the fiercest competition to get them among cities and regions," said Trimble, whose local organization is focused on the talent attraction and retention issue.

The report, called "Migration of the Young, Single, and College Educated: 1995 to 2000," used responses from the 2000 census long form, received by one in six households. The younger, educated respondents who had moved since 1995 became the report's focus because of their perceived desirability as residents. The attention on unmarried individuals came from their ability to move more freely than those attached to families and mortgages.

The report found that Naples, Fla., Las Vegas, Charlotte, N.C., Atlanta and Portland, Ore., had the biggest growth from migration of those in the group.

Of the 20 largest metropolitan areas -- Pittsburgh is 21st -- all but Philadelphia, Detroit and Cleveland showed a net gain. For those three, the rate of their drain was not as high as Pittsburgh's, where 11,441 individuals meeting the report's definitions moved in from 1995 to 2000, and 18,885 moved out.

While the sheer numbers loss placed Pittsburgh 275th of 276 for its brain drain, its rate of loss was 166th out of 276. Other old Pennsylvania and Ohio cities, like Erie and Toledo, had a higher drain rate, as did many college towns often perceived as attractive, including Tucson, Ariz., Charlottesville, Va., and State College.

Christopher Briem, a regional economist for the University of Pittsburgh Center for Social and Urban Research, said the report may not be bad news as much as a simple reflection of the area's status.

"The local production and local supply of highly educated workers is such that we can't possibly absorb them all," Briem said. "We do a decent job at actually retaining them but ... our ability to attract these workers from elsewhere is depressed."

Boston, Minneapolis and other big cities that double as learning centers, however, still received a net inflow of highly educated young people in their 20s and 30s. They are the entrepreneurs sensing the best places to develop as professionals, with the most freedom to move about the country, and everyone wants them, observed Gordon De Jong, Penn State University professor of sociology and demography.

"It's unfortunate [for Pittsburgh]," said De Jong, who noted he had not yet examined the data. "It's a case of, 'We've got 'em here, folks, but we can't keep 'em. They're not staying.' "

Trimble said the statistics highlight both the importance of "engaging" students in the Pittsburgh community while they are here, in hopes of keeping them, and the need to focus marketing on other demographic groups who may be more likely to immigrate here.

"It's important to recognize this is a small slice of the population. It's an important slice, but not the whole pie," she said. "Pittsburgh's competitive advantage may not lie with this group" of young singles, but with people a little older and ready to settle with families.


Gary Rotstein can be reached at grotstein@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1255.

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