Cleveland and the Fight for Talent


Mark Rantala recently wrote an op-ed for Crain’s Cleveland Business that talks about Cleveland’s need for talent:

"As executive director of the Lake County Ohio Port and Economic Development Authority, I have experienced firsthand the challenges of a shrinking workforce. At the Port Authority, we have done a deep dive into the data at the county level. In 10 years, Lake County will experience a shortage of between 4,000 and 8,000 people to ll all the existing jobs in the county. From retail clerk and cook, to CNC operator or chemist, from nurse to physician, we will not have the people to ll all the existing jobs — let alone provide the workforce necessary to support the future growth of businesses currently operating in Lake County or new businesses we attract. No population growth means no workers — which means no ability to attract new businesses. We are fast approaching a crisis point as retiring baby boomers are not being replaced. The reality is this is not only a Lake County issue. At a macro level, this problem exists throughout Northeast Ohio and may be worse in many other counties than in Lake County.

Nearly every market in the United States has some type of campaign to attract people. A few examples: Ten years ago Michigan started a campaign as part of the Pure Michigan campaign. They spend $2 million annually from their travel and tourism campaign on trying to repatriate Michiganders that left in the Great Recession. Their campaign is having some impact — the lights have not gone out in Detroit. Nashville, in an effort to attract people for the IT industry, runs a successful campaign called WorkIT Nashville. The Youngstown Business Incubator has a successful campaign to attract talent. Dallas, one of the fastest-growing markets in the United States, has a campaign called Say Yes to Dallas. On average, more than 300 people move to Dallas every day, over 100,000 people each year. And yet, here in Northeast Ohio, we are watching the U-Hauls and businesses line up to leave for markets where there are people to support the needs of businesses. We watch as our talent leaves the region for greater opportunities.

I have a few thoughts on this.

First, Cleveland is a market in transition, like most of the Rust Belt. It is still processing the collapse of much of its industrial base, while trying to build a new economy around a different basis.

These processes play out in different ways to combine into a headline number around population. Cleveland’s demographic decline is probably baked into the cake as a result of the overhang from deindustrialization. The new economy being developed around functions like health care is not yet offsetting this decline, though is visible at the ground level in select neighborhoods like downtown and Ohio City. The truth is that thousands of new residents have moved into downtown Cleveland in recent years, but that’s being overwhelmed by legacy demographic decline.

The same thing is happening at a more advanced stage in Pittsburgh. Its regional population continues to decline even as there has been a massive increase in educated youth population and significant growth in the high tech industry. If Cleveland follows the same trajectory, it should feel good.

The case for this kind of analysis has already been made in detail by Richey Piiparinen and Jim Russell, so I don’t need to say anything more.

But just because economic and demographic transition is happening, that doesn’t make the case for trying to ramp of talent attraction wrong. As I’ve documented, even the demographically best performing Midwest metros like Columbus, Indianapolis, and Minneapolis are weak talent attractors that essentially have no draw from outside their immediate state, and to a lesser extent surrounding states. This is in big contrast to places like Austin, Charlotte, and Nashville which are drawing people from all over.

Boosting migration into these places, including Cleveland, is critical. Clearly for some places, migrants are following an established pathway. People started to migrating to them from New Jersey, or from some village in Mexico, years ago, and now word of mouth and the network is drawing more. But even so, places like Cleveland need to start at the beginning building more of those migration chains.

I’m not totally opposed to marketing campaigns directed at talent, but I am not sure how effective they are. Migration is in part related to the city’s overall brand. If your brand is good, you will be a draw. If your brand isn’t so good, you’re not on the map.

I would suggest overall working on the brand. When it comes to talent specifically, I would focus more on sales than marketing. You’ve already got tons of people who travel to Cleveland. Why not try to give them a sales pitch on the city? How do you convert a convention attendee to a potential resident or employee?

I’ve long noticed that while cities obsess endlessly over talent, very few of them ever seem to actually pitch a real live person on living there. That suggests a disconnect somewhere in the engine.

So while there are some complexities to the talent issue in Cleveland, Rantala’s not wrong that it’s critical to get more in the game and get way more aggressive and serious. That’s not just true for Cleveland, but for every city in the Midwest.

This piece originally appeared on Urbanophile.

Aaron M. Renn is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, a contributing editor of City Journal, and an economic development columnist for Governing magazine. He focuses on ways to help America’s cities thrive in an ever more complex, competitive, globalized, and diverse twenty-first century. During Renn’s 15-year career in management and technology consulting, he was a partner at Accenture and held several technology strategy roles and directed multimillion-dollar global technology implementations. He has contributed to The Guardian,, and numerous other publications. Renn holds a B.S. from Indiana University, where he coauthored an early social-networking platform in 1991.