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Cleveland's Fight for Talent Poses a Branding Challenge


Cleveland's Fight for Talent Poses a Branding Challenge

Crain's Cleveland Business September 16, 2018
Urban PolicyOther

Mark Rantala, executive director of the Lake County Ohio Port and Economic Development Authority, wrote a Sept. 3 op-ed for Crain's Cleveland Business that talks about Cleveland's need for talent and a people-attraction campaign to address the challenges of a shrinking workforce.

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 such as 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 up talent attraction wrong. 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 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 appeared at Crain's Cleveland Business


Aaron M. Renn is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and contributing editor at City Journal. Follow him on Twitter here.