It's good to have my favorite contrarian back in town from Navy reserve service in the Iraq war. Chris Briem has returned to his post at Pitt as regional economist with the University Center for Social and Urban Research.
In my inquiries into Pittsburgh subjects, it has been useful to have Chris's cautionary, statistic-backed opinions that often contradict the conventional wisdom. Fortunately, during his year in Oman, he was able to keep up on Pittsburgh affairs through reading the Post-Gazette online, "even before most Pittsburghers did, thanks to the time zone difference."
Example: People bemoan the future consequences for the Pittsburgh region of so high a percentage of elderly here. A needless worry, Chris maintains: "That's because 20 years ago, with the collapse of the steel industry, people in their 40s left town."
New census forecasts show that the national elderly population will go up by 55 percent between 2000 and 2020. Yet UCSUR models show that our region's increase will be well below 10 percent for that period. Not until 2025 will our region reach a number of elderly equal to where we were in 1995, with distinct differences in that the elderly population then will be healthier, with people working more, retiring later and so on. Therefore, "Pittsburgh will be a case study of where the nation will be in 2025. We just got there 30 years earlier than other places."
The point is that Pittsburgh won't be as affected as other regions by the baby-boomer wave now reaching the retirement age. Medical facilities, retirement homes and other institutions for the elderly should accommodate accordingly, Chris advises.
Another contrarian view: Some people are concerned at the comparative lack of immigrants to bolster the work force. Actually, Chris says, we have the most educated immigrant flow in the country, thanks to the draw of our universities and medical institutions. He is not worried about attracting immigrants, per se, arguing that if the jobs become available, they will come.
Because of our plethora of educational institutions, there are "a disproportionate number of college graduates in their 20s" -- so that companies don't have to go outside to recruit.
Some people talk of the "boomerang" generation -- Pittsburghers who left and now have returned. Chris' findings are that those who boomerang usually do so within five years. "If all those who left were returning at the normal rate, you'd see a lot more young people here." But his research suggests that the number of young people moving in and moving out is about a net balance.
Pittsburghers should realize that "we are a good college town. What college town gets upset if its graduates leave? Look at State College. No one considers it a failure on that account."
Jobs? A major minus for Chris is that our biotech hopes of a few years ago haven't panned out yet. Fuel cell hopes are dwindling. The celebrated location of a Siemens fuel-cell factory in Munhall has faltered.
But some contrarian hopes emerge. (Chris worries that the description "contrarian" usually denotes pessimism, whereas he feels his views about the region are mostly optimistic.) For example, what can a Pittsburgh now mired in gloom do? "Quit gnashing its teeth."
From the vantage point of a year abroad, Chris sees many bright spots, despite the naysayers. He feels Pittsburgh's future will continue as Energy-burgh, with a judicious mix of the old and new economies in that endeavor. For instance, China's economic growth is positively affecting our steel industry in terms of demand. Coal mining is another strength, with Pennsylvania a large net exporter of electricity "because of coal, mostly."
A bright spot for future overseas sales, including China, is that Pittsburgh has more nuclear engineers than anywhere else, thanks to Bechtel's Bettis facility (formerly Westinghouse-owned). Given energy problems in the years ahead, "if the nation ever gets past its phobia on nuclear plants, there could be a good future for Pittsburgh in that field."
On one subject, the Iraq war, Chris is reticent. For one thing, as a continuing member of the reserves, he is required to hold his tongue. But, second, he was hundreds of miles from Iraq; he served in a unit shipping supplies to the combat zone. Mobilized as a chief petty officer, Chris during his year in service was commissioned as an ensign.
A native of Pittsburgh, Chris's schooling included Carlow School, Immaculate Conception in Bloomfield, Shady Side Academy and Princeton University.
In sum, one doesn't have to agree with everything Chris says, but it is refreshing in making judgments to have someone here with a different outlook from the prevailing wisdom.