America needs a talent strategy that includes the heartland

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Congress recently passed the $350 billion America Competes Act, which is designed to boost the nation’s high-tech industry and strengthen internal supply chains. This is welcome news. Offshoring has undermined our manufacturing base, which in turn has levied massive societal costs in the form of lost jobs, national security concerns, and supply chain and logistics bottlenecks. Reshoring will bring much-needed jobs to the heartland. In the past few weeks Intel announced a major new semiconductor complex in Ohio and automakers from GM and Ford to electric vehicle maker Rivian have announced new investments in the heartland.

Today, America needs a talent strategy to complement its emerging new economic and industrial strategy.

In a recently released report for the think tank Heartland Forward, my colleagues and I traced America’s changing geography of talent over the past decade. It shows a promising shift in that geography of talent — one that federal policy can help to accelerate.

For the past several decades, highly educated talent has been massively concentrated in coastal superstar cities and tech hubs like New York, Boston, Washington, D.C., the San Francisco Bay Area and Seattle. But even before the COVID-19 pandemic and the shift to remote work, that geography was starting to change in subtle but significant ways.

While our findings show that the traditional coastal superstar cities and tech hubs continue to top the rankings, metros across the country have made considerable strides. Notable among them are: Austin, Texas; Minneapolis-St. Paul, Minn.; Kansas City, Mo.; St. Louis, Mo.; Oklahoma City, Okla.; Des Moines, Iowa; Omaha, Neb.; Columbus and Cincinnati, Ohio; and Nashville, Tenn. — as well as such smaller cultural hubs and college towns as Ann Arbor, Mich.; Madison, Wis.; Iowa City, Iowa; Auburn, Ala., and Fayetteville-Rogers-Springdale, Ark.

Much of the credit goes to the hard work smaller metros across the country have done to build up their economies and improve their quality of life to attract talent. Heartland communities in particular have developed leading-edge initiatives to attract remote workers and build up their talent bases.

I have advised on some of these strategies. Like “Tulsa Remote,” which offers $10,000 grants to remote workers who move to Tulsa for at least a year and also helps them find affordable housing and become integrated into the community. The program has attracted more than a thousand workers and generated substantial direct and indirect economic benefits. Or a post-COVID recovery strategy for Northwest Arkansas, which stretches from Fayetteville to Bentonville and has developed strategies to build up its quality of place through significant investments in arts and culture and outdoor amenities, including the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art and a network of world-class bike paths and trails. Communities across the region have worked to improve their innovation and entrepreneurial ecosystems supported by initiatives like Community Growth Program and Toolkit of Heartland Forward (where I am a senior fellow), in Tulsa, Oklahoma City, Oxford, Miss., and Iowa City, Iowa. 

The federal government is also helping heartland communities and communities across America strengthen their talent bases and build up their industry capabilities. An important step in this direction is the Biden administration’s Build Back Better Regional Challenge which provides support for local efforts to develop stronger talent and tech driven industry clusters. As I recently pointed out in CityLab, the program is already supporting the development of new industry clusters, like an advanced manufacturing cluster in Detroit, a robotics and artificial intelligence cluster in Pittsburgh, a medical science cluster in Arkansas, an advanced mobility cluster in Tulsa, an aerospace and defense cluster in West Virginia and more.

There is increasing talk of a looming talent shortage in America today. But, in reality, our nation faces no such shortage. 

More than 45 percent of America’s workforce toils in low-wage service jobs in retail, clerical work, delivery, and personal services. Never mind the millions upon millions who are unemployed, underemployed, or who live in concentrated poverty. That is a waste of talent that cannot and must not be tolerated.

The federal government can do more to address America’s talent needs and support the talent already underway, by providing more funding for local talent development, workforce development and neighborhood hubs for bolstering talent in distressed communities.

​​Our research does not predict a complete reversion to the more diffuse talent system of the 1950s and 60s. Coastal superstar cities and tech clusters will likely remain the leading talent hubs for the foreseeable future — but the trends of the past decade show that a group of smaller and medium-sized heartland metros and rural areas are becoming talent hubs too.

This trend is likely to accelerate given the rise of remote work and the fact that heartland metros offer a winning combination of available, affordable housing, good schools, and a great quality of life, especially for families.

The federal government should do everything it can to support these trends and help America close its talent gaps.

Richard Florida is University Professor at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management and School of Cities and a senior fellow at Heartland Forward. He is co-founder of CityLab and the author of “The Rise of the Creative Class” and “The New Urban Crisis.”

Tags America COMPETES Act Creative class economic strategy economy Heartland International business Reshoring Rural America Rust Belt small cities talent Workforce development
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