Skip to main content

Border Guard Bob Says, 'Pittsburgh Is Dying'

Every one in every place, it seems, has an idea for how to keep young college graduates from moving away. But is it even possible?
  • Author:
  • Updated:
Downtown Pittsburgh Skyscrapers seen from Station Square. (Photo: Zach Rudisin/Wikimedia Commons)

Downtown Pittsburgh Skyscrapers seen from Station Square. (Photo: Zach Rudisin/Wikimedia Commons)

Every town, city, and state complains about brain drain. Every place is dying. Dateline February 27, 2014, "How Pittsburgh Can Up Its Game in Brainpower":

“We have a good population of students, but we’re not retaining them,” said Jim Denova, vice president of the Benedum Foundation. A major part of a future Pittsburgh will depend on understanding why students leave and what they want out of the city, Denova said. ...

... “I am convinced there are ways to retain that population,” said the Benedum Foundation's Denova.

Please recall my post titled, "Atlanta Is Dying." I quoted the city's mayor, "Right now, we only keep 50 percent of Georgia Tech’s graduates." Denova and Mayor Reed are making the same complaint. With such great universities, one would expect a higher percentage of college graduates in the regional workforce. But in this study of brainpower, Atlanta ranks 30th and Pittsburgh 32nd out of 102 major markets. Something must be horribly wrong with each place. In Pittsburgh's case, Kevin Stolarick (research director at the Martin Prosperity Institute at the University of Toronto) predictably scapegoats local intolerance:

Experts say one of the biggest problems for Pittsburgh is welcoming outsiders, particularly foreign-born students. ...

... “You get this feeling of ‘yinz isn’t from here,’” Stolarick said. "There’s a vibe of, ‘you’re a student, you’re not really from here.”

Recognizing this attitude will go a long way in helping the city retain new talent. It can help the city focus on new initiatives aimed at keeping newcomers and international students here.

If the "experts" say it, then it must be true. Save for the fact that retention isn't a problem in Pittsburgh, no matter how much Stolarick and Denova insist otherwise. Stolarick should know better. I suspect he does know better. About that Border Guard Bob:

The idea that young people are not fleeing has not been a part of any data apparent to me for a long time now.  So I may be wrong, but nobody can say I am inconsistent.  Apologies for those sick of hearing about Bob, but it really is an idea that just will not die in Pittsburgh.  I routinely have conversations to this day with someone who wants to do something or another to 'retain' people and do whatever it takes to keep them from leaving.  Especially the idea of keeping more young college graduates here as if it is possible to keep young college grads from moving.. or if it is even possible to keep more than we are already retaining.  Border Guard Bob was a big deal.   I saw the story boards for the Border Guard Bob production being toured around and the projected ad buy I remember clearly as being touted was going to be ~$8mil and that was nearly 15 years ago.  Real money and the real cost was not the $$ but the self-defeating message it gave to ourselves... and let's not even ponder what fun the world might have had with it all.  It was a pre-sarcastic age (no Colbert) so it may not have been so bad.

I think keeping the dates straight on all of this is important. Regional economist Chris Briem, at the University of Pittsburgh, wrote that passage in August of 2012. Border Guard Bob will not die. In 2006, the Economist eulogized Bob:

A FEW years ago, the Pittsburgh region was so desperate to hang on to its brightest young people that its boosters thought about running television ads featuring “Border Guard Bob”, a patrolman who would have stopped youngsters on their way out of town and urged them to stay. Wisely, the boosters scrapped that idea. And increasingly it seems as though the worries were misplaced anyway. Many of the graduates from Pittsburgh's 34 universities—led by Carnegie Mellon and the University of Pittsburgh—do stick around, and some of them are finding work in cutting-edge scientific fields. A couple of decades after the collapse of the local steel industry prompted many Pittsburghers to flee, the city has a rosier future.

Hooray for Pittsburgh! But in 2007, "Border Guard Bob Comes Out of Retirement." Sensing a theme yet? I wish some clever Pittsburgh-based artist would draw Border Guard Bob as a zombie. Not even one-month old, a few weeks before the above 2014 brain drain claim, Politico wrote about "The Robots That Saved Pittsburgh":

During the intervening decade, [Richard] Florida had gone on to become a famous (and well-compensated) apostle of urban renewal, a charismatic management consultant with a catchy slogan for cities—“technology, talent and tolerance.” But the locals were not among his greatest admirers. No one denied that Florida had a point about the stodgy culture (in the early 2000s, young entrepreneurs were summoned to discuss economic development strategy at the old-boy Duquesne Club downtown only to be turned away because they weren’t wearing ties, per the club’s dress code).

But down in the trenches, program officers at local foundations who were trying to hasten the transformation thought Florida had the sequencing backwards. “We needed talent more than tolerance. The tolerance follows the talent,” says Christina Gabriel, who funneled millions into tech start-ups during more than a decade as an officer at the Heinz Endowments. “The thing that really mattered was time… A lot of the older people retired and were eventually replaced by a new generation of people who got it… It takes time. You can accelerate change a little bit, but not a lot.” ...

... As recently as 2000, the imperative was simply to staunch the bleeding. Pittsburgh had an unemployment rate higher than Rust Belt cohorts like Cleveland, and was still hemorrhaging young people. At times, the local efforts to lure them back were comical: In 1999, a regional marketing group put together a television ad campaign centered around Border Guard Bob, an imaginary ranger type who would literally halt residents on their way out and persuade them to stay. (Wiser heads prevailed, and pulled the plug on the idea.) But around 2003, the recovery finally took root and the city’s unemployment rate started to dip, with an interlude courtesy of the Great Recession (it stands at 6.6 percent as of November, below the national average and significantly better than Cleveland’s 7.3 percent or Detroit’s 9.3 percent). The post-9/11 wars— and consequent massive buildup in Washington’s defense spending—brought a surge of federal contracts to the region, much of it funneled through Carnegie Mellon. A network of city leaders also came together and managed to completely overhaul miles of riverfront land, seeding billions of dollars in private development. By 2009, for the first time in decades, the population began to grow, and it was getting younger. Not by much, but it was a landmark moment for a city with an abandonment complex. Part of the economic improvement had nothing to do with robots or high tech—the region also has abundant natural resources, and has been boosted by the recovery of newly tappable shale-gas deposits—but it was also clear that the university-industry pipeline that had been painstakingly laid over the years was finally starting to produce for the larger economy.

As recently as this week, the imperative is to staunch the bleeding. Both tolerance and Border Guard Bob got panned as an economic strategy for Pittsburgh. Yes, the parochial culture continues to be a problem. Young adults with college degrees don't pay attention to such things when migrating. They are equal opportunity get-out-of-towners.

For the moment, I will concede the point that Pittsburgh suffers brain drain because of intolerance. Dr. Stolarick, whom should Pittsburgh emulate?

Pittsburgh has high-tech startups, leadership positions in health care and innovation, and major research institutions like Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Pittsburgh. But one of its biggest challenges is shifting its mindset away from traditional rivals like Detroit and Cleveland toward the top-tier innovation and technology powerhouses like the Silicon Valley and Boston, said [Stolarick].

Ah, to be Boston. To suffer horrible, awful brain drain:

The Foundation's 2002 Boston Indicators Report highlighted the need to focus on reversing the departure over the past decade of talented young people from the region, because they are often the drivers of innovation. Our study has found that there is indeed a problem of graduate retention in Greater Boston. But we have also identified a number of opportunities for increasing the retention rate, and they can be implemented immediately.

The funniest part of that 2003 report is that it cites Pittsburgh as a best practice in talent retention and attraction. Even funnier is this, almost 10 years later:

"The brain drain from Boston’s campuses to other cities after graduation is real, and there are several organizations working to resolve it," says a news release on the event. "The Greenhorn Summit will showcase Boston’s vibrant startup community to top business, engineering and design students."

Boston is dying.