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Understanding the brain drain in Birmingham

05.14.2009 by André Natta · → 14 Comments

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NOTE: Don’t forget to share your thoughts on whether or not we have a brain drain in Birmingham over on MCQ.

So apparently when The J. Clyde owner Jerry Hartley and Birmingham mayor Larry Langford had their disagreement yesterday tat the end of the Five Points South Merchants Association meeting, they weren’t arguing about that album by The Ramones. They also weren’t approaching the comments from the same perspective based on the varying accounts of the story. Though based on what’s been going on around the region for the past few years, they should have been.

Perhaps if Hartley had used the term human capital flight instead of brain drain Mayor Langford would have understood his point more clearly. Funny thing is I’ve sat in several meetings both here in Birmingham and elsewhere where the term brain drain has been used with most people agreeing that it is the case. It’s not necessarily a knock on the city’s residents, but the causes for the drain are something to consider when you look at the tools needed to showcase the magic that Mayor Langford says is happening right now in town and needs to continue to happen.

This would be why organizations like the local chapter of the Harvard Club created a program called “Stop the Brain Drain” and several organizations, including  our Regional Chamber of Commerce (it’s on page 2) and Empower Alabama (under education) use the term to describe our community’s perception that we cannot retain our college-educated individuals.

People have been working for years to combat the issue; in 2002, then CEO of CTS Steve Atkins told the Birmingham Business Journal that “we strive to keep these kids here by getting them involved in challenging and interesting projects and actually help with the brain-drain problem.”

When revealing their Top 40 under 40 in 2008, the BBJ reported that according to available data, Birmingham was the only city in Alabama that didn’t show a brain drain.

Even with those efforts and results, we should not be content with just getting by on our efforts to make the region more welcoming and inviting for those young professionals looking for somewhere to call home at the beginning (and hopefully throughout) their careers or to those that want to advance in their career considering metro Birmingham as an option. I’ll aim my comments towards the young professional angle.

There are a lot of active young people in Birmingham, AL nowadays. They are finding a way to have their voices heard, however we are still hearing them say that they need to go somewhere else to advance their careers. They want to make an impact now and have their voices heard; they’re willing to sit on a junior board and wait their turn, though they hope that they are being used as effectively as possible. If they find that they aren’t, they are more willing to disconnect from the rest of the community, depriving us of that one person that could take us to the next level. Sometimes that disconnection doesn’t necessarily mean leaving town but just leaving the high society life that many feel is the only way to become a leader.

We should not just look to young people as prospective members of a junior board or as people who can offer opinions on suggestions but not the reccommendations themselves. There is still a level of disconnection among young professional organizations, despite significant efforts for that not to be the case. There are also young people that don’t necessarily know how they can contribute nor do they feel as though they are going to be allowed to. Communication should be strengthened – which means more than just sharing what’s going on but figuring out how folks can work together to effective move Birmingham forward faster than it’s currently happening and that we’re actually working together and not functioning on two different planets of reality.

Our region’s future is dependent upon everyone being on the same page about the issues. Let’s hope that the buzz surrounding this exchange that exists online already ensures we’ve gotten to that point and that we can move forward to effectively deal with the problem, instead of spending more time hoping that the overlap that needs to be happening for meaningful progress to be made does.

André Natta is the stationmaster of bhamterminal.com.

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Filed under: development

14 comments
Todd
Todd

Beyond the negative tone of my original blog, I want to thank you all at the Terminal for making positive news and connections your mandate!! My personal goal has been to try to focus on the positives. Sometimes though, the negatives pile up and I have to blow some steam. The mayor's rant on Mr. Hartley really hurt me, personally, and has made me decide "enough's enough" and to start speaking my own mind, get involved more (i.e. network) and try to team up with the folks who really are trying to "do something". Thanks, Terminal, for being the hub!!!

Todd
Todd

I'm an artist living with my partner in the Burger-Phillips building downtown. We've made a tremendous financial investment in moving to our loft apartment, and we've bought a building downtown for me to have a place to paint, draw, sculpt and create in peace. Currently, I use the building for these endeavors, and I use it as a storage facility for our overflow "treasures", and to store items from my recently departed parents' house (family photos, awards, journals, books, personal bric-a-brac, etc), and it's a haven for two rescued cats. I would LOVE LOVE LOVE to open the building up as a gallery similar to Hawthorne Gallery, but much more like Warhol's art factory. However, due to the byzantine beaurocracy and seemingly hostile attitude from City Hall regarding small businesses, and the ineffectiveness of ONB, we dare not attempt to stick our necks out and pursue this. So, the building can sit, underused and quiet. From an artistic viewpoint, Birmingham leaves a lot to be deserved. Every other serious artist I know struggles to get their work seen, unless they already belong to Bare Hands Gallery or Marilyn Wilson. We can't all paint poodles, rustic barns, trips to Provence or football players in action. Sips N Strokes and Red Barn Gallery (both in Vestavia Hills) exemplify the height of visual culture in this region, and it's mystifying. While our museum is a fantastic building & gardens, and amazingly cool people work there, the overwhelming weight of Wedgwood, lace doilies, Cowboy art, Renaissance art and Mountain Brook docents creates a droll, stodgy, overly-conservative ambience. We deserve a High Museum, a Corcoran or some alternative space to showcase cutting-edge Southern, National & International art. Part of the "brain drain" is the pervasive Alabama backwardness Birmingham floats in. A lot of it has to do with what I call "stay-at-home" culture. Seriously, is there ANY reason the empty spaces across from the Alabama Theatre aren't bustling with cafe's, bars, indie viewing rooms, psychic readers, eateries and gift shops????? It's not just about high-tech industries, neurosurgeons or software designers. The region is totally beholden to the Network Television Cul-de-Sac Lifestyle, circa 1968, while Jones Valley (where all the really cool stuff is) continues to sink into economic and social anarchy, and I'm afraid that will not change. And another thing, City Hall would rather pander to the homeless people around the Phoenix Lofts and the Leer Tower, than help out-of-state developers revive that area. I know we need shelters, especially for the truly downtrodden, but not when those same shelters do nothing but enable a street-living lifestyle, and prevent downtown from being gentrified. It's not going to hurt Birmingham's demographics to have downtown & parts of Southside gentrified. We have the money to pay the taxes to support the schools and police & fire departments, and would prefer to do ALL our purchasing downtown, or in the city limits. As it is, having to rely strictly on debit cards to avoid being accosted by beggars is frustrating. We give to our diocese, Jimmie Hale and the other entities that put that money to good use, and we pay our fair share of taxes at bars, restaurants and Birmingham's ABC stores. Having typed this tirade, and speaking also for my partner, this is our home, and we don't know of an easy way to uproot ourselves, and move off to greener pastures, even if we wanted to. Why should we have to in order to find happiness and self-expression? Downtown is very, very difficult to enjoy as a place to live, when the sidewalks roll up at sundown. It's as safe as Trussville, to be sure, but if we wanted quiet boredom, we'd move out to Maytown.

Andre Natta
Andre Natta

I'll also take a moment to remind folks that we do have a terms of use policy on The Terminal. If you want us to share your comments with our other readers, you may want to check it out before you click submit.

mathu
mathu

I do think that the mayor has a personality deficit which leads to many obstacles when dealing with business people in and out of OUR city. I know he is a fan of Birmingham but he has a problem seeing the forest through the trees. There are no long term goals for securing Federal grant money for downtown revitalization projects so we just get taxed more for projects that could and should be covered by Federal money. There are no long term goals for incubating small hip businesses who want to move down town but don't because they spend too much time and money dealing with a overwhelming large city government and its lack of willingness to help. There is no long term goal for public transportation except for dumping money in an already inadequate system that services only a few. Some possible solutions. Federal grants: Hire a GOOD grant writer who specializes in capitol projects and has connections with folks Washington. Small business: Start giving out, yes, giving out money to qualified and prepared entrepreneurs who want to make downtown their business address. Transit: We missed the 500 million boat on this one Perhaps She will sail back this way on the sea of sugar in stead of sea of vinegar. Fixing the roads downtown is great. Giving XO laptops to all the young public school kids I think is pretty cool but dangerous. Getting the Davis Cup is cool. Its doing something yes I will agree however a pious attitude and a seriously tainted personal past will unfortunate not move OUR city into a healthy future under your mayorship. I feel as if the leaders in this area were given a good horse but they sadly don't know what a horse is and what a horse can do.

Andre Natta
Andre Natta

I think that some of your thoughts are a beginning, mathu, though I'm wondering about what happens to those other pockets of opportunity in the city and the metropolitan area?

brad daly
brad daly

Langford has a long-standing reputation as a bully, going back at least to his days at UAB. According to the stories I've heard about yesterday, he behaved abusively toward his security detail when they attempted to restrain him at BFT.

Andre Natta
Andre Natta

Well, before I start casting stones about exact details (since I wasn't there). I'd rather have folks hear what happened directly from one of the principals, courtesy of WBHM: WBHM Interview with Jerry Hartley, 5.14.2009

shadowhelm
shadowhelm

When the mayor addresses criticism with aggression and anger nothing good can result. It was foolish of him to make a scene regardless of what the business owner said. Langford is the mayor and should act like he has some class and not like a grade school bully. Regardless of the real or perceived brain drain this city experiences, the hostile environment toward business is the most damaging. How much more unlikely is it that a potential entrepreneur is going to locate a business in the city because of this incident? Contrary to what he might think, Langford can't just decree a new era of prosperity for Birmingham and have it magically become a reality. The mayor and the rest of the city government has to create a positive environment that encourages investment and opportunity and right now I see very little of that from our elected officials. Langford can't change things by force of will and treating everyone like the enemy only makes the situation worse.

brad daly
brad daly

It's pretty clear Larry Langford's brain was drained quite a while ago.

Sunny
Sunny

Andre - I enjoyed your commentary and wish more people would consider the consequences of not making better use of the "other" people in and around the region that can make valuable contributions to the region. Unfortunately, people with passion and purpose are leaving because they are sadly being overlooked. "same old people producing the same old results". Unfortunately, what some don't realize is that this region is about 10+ years behind in so many things but I'm sticking around and hopefully will be a contributor in helping us catch up!

Garrett Davis
Garrett Davis

Two things are disturbing about this situation: 1) That our mayor is apparently unaware of the term "brain drain." 2) That the mayor would approach any disagreement with a business owner with such a poor response. I don't care what is said about the city (or rather, what he thought was said), aggression and intimidation is no way for the mayor to interact with anyone. It is beyond unprofessional and very embarrassing for the city. Lets just hope that the J-Clyde doesn't decide to relocate to homewood as a result.

Wade
Wade

Good point. Brain drain is such a hard thing to measure, but quality of education, unemployment rate and average income can be good indicators. What's the point when a mayor yells at a business owner rather than listening and thinking?

Wade Kwon
Wade Kwon

I'm wary of that Birmingham Business Journal article. The chamber official cited a study that the reporter apparently didn't double check. Of course the chamber says Birmingham doesn't have a brain drain. Doesn't make it true or false, though.

Andre Natta
Andre Natta

Actually, a look at the overview report linked to early on in this piece prepared by the Chamber would show that they actually do think that we still have a brain drain, wouldn't it?