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REI study: Brain drain is only a symptom of a larger problem

Case Western Reserve University : 08 February, 2001  (Technical Article)
In their quest to create more good-paying, high-tech jobs, economic development officials around the nation often focus on stemming 'brain drain', the movement of science and engineering graduates to established high-tech centers such as Silicon Valley and Austin, Texas. But a new study from Case Western Reserve University's Center for Regional Economic Issues concludes that brain drain itself is not a problem. Instead, it is a symptom of a broader economic development issue: the lack of a large high-tech sector which can provide jobs for people with technology degrees.
'The number of people with science and engineering degrees moving in or out of a particular state is only one dimension of the issue,' says Paul Gottlieb, REI associate director and the author of the study. 'Brain drain can only be fully understood in the context of the overall supply of, and demand for, people with technical degrees.'

The report, 'The Problem of Brain Drain in Ohio and Northeast Ohio,' was commissioned by the Ohio Board of Regents and the Jobs and Workforce Initiative of the Greater Cleveland Growth Association. Its data and conclusions pertain to all 50 states.

Analyzing information from the National Science Foundation for the period 1990-97, the report categorizes each state by the number of recent high-tech graduates it produces (the supply), and the number of such graduates it employs (the demand). It also looks at how many college graduates from each state are employed in the state where they received their degrees.

In addition, the report ranks states by retention (the percentage of people with scientific/engineering degrees working in the state where they earned the degree), attraction (the percentage of high-tech workers who earned degrees outside the state), and by net high-tech migration as a percent of each state's total population.

Examining the data this way, says Gottlieb, demonstrates that the number of scientists moving into or out of a state does not necessarily indicate the state's high-tech health. 'Looking at Massachusetts, for example, we see that it is a net exporter of graduates with science and engineering degrees. Yet no one would argue that Massachusetts lacks a strong high-tech sector,' Gottlieb says.

Similarly, he adds, a state like New Jersey has little cause for concern about brain drain, even though it graduates relatively few scientists. The state has a comparatively large high-tech sector and has been able to import the educated people that sector requires.

On the other hand, states where both the supply and demand for high-tech graduates are low, or where the supply is high and demand is low, do have what is commonly understood as a brain drain problem. These states, Gottlieb contends, need to develop more high-tech industries, through strategies such as encouraging entrepreneurship and technology transfer.

The report offers these principles to elected officials and policymakers concerned about brain drain:

Don't be misled by simple measures of out-migration. They don't provide clear evidence that a state or region has an economic development problem.
Benchmark your region against its peers on the things that matter
Don't scale back your higher education capacity just because it appears you are educating other states' technology workers.
Work on technology transfer, lifestyle and recreation amenities, and personnel recruitment simultaneously. All are part of a 'New Economy' model.
Invest in state-of-the-art research facilities for your universities and get national attention for them, so that they attract students and faculty from around the country.
Pursuing these policies for the long-term will maximize a state or metropolitan region's opportunities for taking advantage of technological innovations and translating them into jobs, Gottlieb concludes.
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