Pretty smart people finding more appeal here in Pittsburgh

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Most of the jobs these days must be in measuring stuff.

Almost every day, I'm directed to another story or press release about a new civic measurement for Pittsburgh, and it's generally good news. Take an article by Richard Florida in The Atlantic last month, "Where the Brains Are Going."

Pittsburgh is grabbing a higher percentage of college graduates these days, says Mr. Florida. In fact, our take of the nation's diploma-holders is going up even as battered Sun Belt cities are losing their appeal. But the level of detail in this measurement is so fine that it would be almost immeasurable to the casual observer.

As the accompanying graph shows, the Pittsburgh metro area had the tiniest fraction more college graduates arriving than it had departing between 2007 and 2009. It's among the nation's few large metropolises where a loss has become a gain.

This calculation was made by William H. Frey of the Brookings Institution, who was riffing on data gleaned from the Census Bureau's American Community Survey. It would seem nothing to write home about, much less write a national magazine piece about. But, as Mr. Florida points out, this uptick is happening as migration to Phoenix, Las Vegas and other metros in the sand states is slowing.

As local economies there have imploded, "young adults are flowing towards larger cities, college towns, knowledge-based and creative economy metros, and even some older Rust Belt metros are beginning to increase their ability to retain and attract" young college grads, Mr. Florida wrote.

Many will recall that Mr. Florida wrote a best-selling book in 2002 called "The Rise of the Creative Class," which hit the shelves while he was still a professor of economic development at Carnegie Mellon University.

In the years preceding that book, Mr. Florida would occasionally write pieces for this newspaper about how Pittsburgh needed to do nontraditional things like build a climbing wall on Mount Washington to attract high-tech talent that likes to get high (on walls, I mean).

We never built that climbing wall, and Mr. Florida left. But in the years since, Pittsburgh has extended its running/biking/skating trail system and beautified its riverfronts. We're kayaking the waters and biking to work as never before.

That's probably well down the list of reasons that college grads are coming here, though those features don't hurt. Grads are coming here for jobs, and maybe because the rest of us didn't make a lot of crazy bets on real estate the way so much of America did. Seeing houses as homes, rather than as investments to be flipped, is among the reasons Pittsburgh has done relatively well these past few years.

But "relatively well" is hard to see, which is why we need so many people measuring data. The only place on this chart where it is obvious that grads are coming back in higher numbers is probably New Orleans, and only because a catastrophic hurricane has been its measuring stick.

In this economy, it has not been safe to move about the country, and Mr. Frey notes that interstate migration is at historic lows. If you're a recent grad still looking for a job, this little uptick for Pittsburgh might not excite you much.

We're still not Austin, Texas, or Raleigh, N.C., or even Phoenix, where almost 70 percent of homeowners owe more on their mortgages than their houses are worth. Despite that, metro Phoenix still has a significantly higher net migration of college grads than metro Pittsburgh.

That said, the gap has shrunk dramatically in just three years, and people are noticing. Recently, on the Web forum City-Data.com, a recent arrival to our city linked to The Atlantic article and wrote: "I know other young adults living in the [Boston-Washington] Corridor who, like me, are tiring of the 'rat race' already in our 20s and want to re-establish ourselves in cities like Pittsburgh so we can prepare to start our families in healthier overall environments with lower stress, less expense, and friendlier surroundings."

But then this person wondered if all these grads are just coming back to live with their parents.

If so, they should look for jobs in measuring data. That creates other jobs. Just ask Mr. Frey, Mr. Florida or me.


Brian O'Neill: boneill@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1947.


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