Talent Geography 101 - Pacific Standard

Talent Geography 101

An introduction to migration, one of the many flows that define globalization.
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(ILLUSTRATION: ANTUN HIRSMAN/SHUTTERSTOCK)

(ILLUSTRATION: ANTUN HIRSMAN/SHUTTERSTOCK)

I dreaded holidays while in graduate school. Over dinner or at a party, someone would ask me about my studies. Geography was my major. Did I study rocks? What is the capital of Burkina Faso? I've had years of experience explaining geography as a social science, even to other social scientists. The discipline of geography is a mystery.

I've encountered a number of clever definitions. "The why of the where" comes to mind. Each geographer has to figure out what she does, what geography is. For me, geography is how two or more places are connected across space. Undergraduates in Boulder, Colorado, impact the lives of children in the Congo. Understanding that link is a matter of human rights. This is why I pursue a line of geographic inquiry.

All day long, I think about how migrants connect places. It's the geography of talent, one of many flows that define globalization. Talent geography is the theme of this blog.

In 1885, Ernest George Ravenstein published "The Laws of Migration." They've held up well. My favorite: "Each main current of migration produces a compensating counter-current."

If your community sends a prodigal daughter or son to a place, then you'll get something and someone back. The initial move isn't a zero-sum game with one locale experiencing brain drain and the destination benefiting from brain gain. Two economies are connected across space. A contemporary example:

Growing up in Scotland, Andrew Millar watched Texans flock to his homeland during the North Sea oil boom of the 1970s.

Forty years later, Millar, now Britain’s consul general in Houston, has seen his fellow Scots drawn across the Atlantic for work in the Gulf of Mexico and the shale fields of South Texas.

“Aberdeen is the world’s second energy capital,” Millar said. “Houston is the first.”

Despite obvious differences–hot vs. cold; sunny vs. cloudy; sprawling vs. compact–people who have worked in both Houston and Aberdeen say the similarities are also striking.

“Lots of engineers,” said Matt Kirk, Americas regional director of the Xodus Group, an Aberdeen-based energy consulting firm that opened a Houston office two years ago. “Lots of smart people. Lots of ambitious people.”

Most people think geography is the cataloging of obvious differences between Houston and Aberdeen. More interesting to a geographer are the striking similarities. The connection is ironic.

The export of talent to Scotland begets a return flow to Texas. Aberdeen is the world’s second energy capital. Houston is the first. Brain drain doesn't exist. Via migration patterns, we can better analyze the economic geography of the energy industry. Action and innovation cluster in a few places. What's the why of the where? Talent migration.

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