Bad press, old housing and slow industrial growth result in upstate 'brain drain,' say experts

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Outside of Tompkins County's educated pocket, upstate New York is plagued by a lack of educated workers. In fact, upstate has one of the largest net losses of educated workers in the nation.

This paucity of "brains" was the focus of the Nov. 2 seminar in Warren Hall at Cornell, "The Brain Drain/Brain Gain Issue in Upstate New York: Research, Education and Outreach Responses," which included development sociologists, economists, young professional advocates, faculty and staff.

Young professionals avoid upstate New York, said Richard Deitz, chief economist of the Federal Reserve Bank's Buffalo branch. Those raised or educated in the area tend to seek jobs elsewhere, and few educated individuals move to upstate. Deitz blames the region's slow industrial growth; because few businesses in each industry thrive in the area, job-seekers risk being unable to find another job during unemployment, and married couples struggle to find suitable jobs for both partners.

But the lack of young professionals also contributes to the region's slow growth, he said. In areas with high human capital (skilled, educated and productive labor) -- where more people hold college degrees or are trained in a specific field -- workers at every level are more productive, job-seeking educated workers move to the area, and the region's commerce and wealth grow quickly. Without incoming professionals, a region like upstate New York won't grow.

So how can a slow-growth region "gain brains?" When Susan Christopherson, Cornell professor of city and regional planning, sought the area's strengths by asking young upstate professionals why they settled in the region, she found, "the area has tremendous recreational opportunities. Our young workers want to go hunting, fishing and hiking." The area's many colleges and universities help, too, drawing students from elsewhere and enticing them to stay.

Upstate New York also has "clusters of small, innovative firms. We have about 90 electronic packaging firms alone, specializing in medical, defense and consumer products," she added. "These businesses hurt for skilled technical workers, pay good wages and would expand in upstate if they could find employees."

To attract more young professionals, Deitz and Christopherson agreed that a region needs certain amenities, especially housing. "They want 'the sprawl,'" said Christopherson. "They're accustomed to large-scale, planned housing developments, not our older housing."

Young professionals know that there's an upstate community that fits their age group and interests, but newcomers struggle to find them, said Deb Mohlenhoff, chair of Ithaca Forward, a local young professional resource organization that serves to connect local young professionals and involve them in the community. "We're striving to become a 'Grand Central Station' of what's going on in Tompkins County and what young residents can take advantage of," said Mohlenhoff.

One of the biggest barriers to attracting "brains" to the area, though, may be bad publicity. "There's a lot of negative press about the area," said Christopherson. "We need better upstate New York marketing, and 'I Love New York' doesn't work for us. Something needs to be undertaken that takes advantage of what people want."

The conference was sponsored by the Community and Rural Development Institute and was part of the Future of Rural New York Seminar Series 2007.

Sam Warren '07 is a writer intern for the Cornell Chronicle.


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