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Creative Class Myths About Talent

• November 22, 2013 • 3:58 PM


Are young, college-educated people attracted to amenities? Or are they attracted to economic opportunity?

People follow jobs. However, the dominant economic development paradigm makes the opposite assertion. Jobs follow people:

Cities should compete to attract and retain immigrants, because nothing does more for a community’s economic future than talent, Knight Foundation Vice President Carol Coletta said Monday.

Coletta, who heads Knight’s Community and National Initiatives program, was speaking during a session on “Welcoming Cities” at the National Immigrant Integration Conference being held through Tuesday at the Hilton Miami Downtown. Being welcoming is not just an attitude, it’s an economic imperative, she said. The percentage of college graduates in a city explains 58 percent of the city’s success, as measured in per-capita income, she said. Cities are in a global competition to attract and retain them, she added.

If you don’t have a talent strategy, you don’t have an economic strategy,” said Coletta, a nationally recognized expert on cities.

Emphasis added. Jobs follow people. If you don’t have an economic strategy, you don’t have a talent strategy. People follow jobs. How a community or consultant approaches talent attraction and immigration depends on the model of urban change.

If jobs follow people, migrants are said to be “amenity-seeking.” Amenities can be natural, such as the allure of a warm Florida winter. Also, amenities can be manufactured, such as a vibrant nightlife. Natural and manufactured amenities explain why so many people moved from the Rust Belt to the Sun Belt. Amenities explain shrinking cities and boomtowns. Then the jobs follow people.

If people follow jobs, migrants are job-seeking. Industrial employment moved to the Sun Belt, where labor was cheaper (i.e. no unions). Coincidentally, those jobs were located in states with better natural amenities. That’s neither here nor there. The Rust Belt unemployed follow the migration of employment. Boom goes Charlotte, North Carolina.

Well, which is it? Depends on the geographic scale of analysis:

In our view, it is more probable that this kind of amenity-seeking behavior is a bigger driver of intra-regional, rather than inter-regional mobility decisions, and hence it has a much smaller influence on long-distance migration than job search and expected nominal income and security. Many individuals choose residential location within a region based on housing qualities and costs, amenities and other Tiebout sorting factors.

These kinds of intra-regional movements are far from minor. In the course of articulating how spatial equilibrium plays out in the context of the U.S. urban system, urban economists routinely observe that American workers are highly mobile (see for example, Glaeser and Gottlieb, 2009, p. 988). This is correct, though the scale of such movement is worthy of attention: around 60 percent of annual mobility consistently occurs within counties, and a large share of the remainder goes on within metropolitan labor markets (Lansing and Mueller, 1967; Quigley and Weinberg, 1977; Schacter, 2001). All of this intra-urban mobility is likely to be guided by issues of land prices and amenities; this paper has shown that it is simply less clear that these are the primary forces driving inter-urban mobility.

Emphasis added. Long-distance migration is the exception, not the rule. See Ravenstein’s laws of migration. A good example of amenity-seeking migration is gentrification. Less crime is a manufactured amenity. An improving neighborhood attracts intra-regional migrants. Talent streams into a bohemian neighborhood full of tolerant artists and musicians. Bam! The Rise of the Creative Class, just like that.

Back to Carol Coletta:

Now, young, college-educated people are gravitating to core urban areas. They are attracted to walkable, transit-accessible, culturally diverse neighborhoods, and immigration is an essential part of the picture. Coletta underscored the potential of leveraging that trend to build more economically integrated communities and to expand opportunity.

“Young people like cultural diversity, which may not have been the case for the older generation,” Coletta said.

Are young, college-educated people attracted to amenities such as “walkable, transit-accessible, culturally diverse neighborhoods?” Or are they attracted to economic opportunity? In this case, “attracted” means “actually moves.” Inter-regionally (i.e. long-distance), the young and the restless are attracted to economic opportunity. The same goes for immigrants. Tolerance or not, the foreign born are moving to gateway cities such as New York. “Welcome” or “go home” changes little.

Jim Russell
Jim Russell is a geographer studying the relationship between migration and economic development.

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