Attracting Professor Smith: The Key to Community Prosperity…

Meet ‘Professor Smith’, a pseudonym for an academic superstar who has published more paradigm altering papers before the age of 35 than most academics are lucky enough to publish in their entire lifetime. Professor Smith could work at almost any English speaking university on the planet. Professor Smith represents workforce ‘talent’ or ‘human capital’ at the highest level. In many ways, she and the professionals like her are the ‘idea machines’ that propel the entire knowledge based economy forward.

In 2002, Richard Florida unleashed his ‘creative capital model’ for economic development, which incorporates the theory that the presence of human capital or talent is a requisite for metropolitan economic growth. Yet the distribution of human capital across communities is uneven. Therefore, the pressing question becomes: what factors influence the locational choices of people like Professor Smith? Several models of urban growth, including Florida’s ‘creative capital model’, tend to privilege the role of place-based amenities and other qualities of place in determining the locational choice of talented workers. In other words, Florida’s model suggests that Professor Smith might be lured to your community if it has a thriving music scene, wide-array of culinary and ‘authentic’ cultural experiences, and a diverse and welcoming populous. It would be nice if it really was that simple, but the locational equation for Professor Smith is considerably more complicated, and as it turns out—may be driven more by jobs than local amenities.

Last month, Statistics Canada published a research paper entitled Cities and Growth: Human Capital Location Choice: Accounting for Amenities and Thick Labour Markets. The paper lives up to its title by thoroughly investigating the relative attractiveness of cities, for talented individuals, based on their amenities and job market. In sum, the paper finds that, “industrial and occupational composition, which are associated with expected incomes, have a profound effect on migrants’ location choices”. The role of amenities, while still considered important, is a secondary locational consideration.

Building from the findings presented in this paper and my work in this area, it appears as if cities with thick labour markets have a distinct advantage in terms of attracting talent, namely—spousal employment opportunities. In many cases it is not enough for a community to just attract Professor Smith, but also her spouse who is also a career oriented professional. Spousal employment is a fundamental consideration for Professor Smith when deciding where to live and work. Academics have plainly summed up the problem, “…if your spouse isn’t happy, you’re not going to last long being happy…everybody’s miserable if one person’s miserable.” Consequently, in smaller sized communities with limited employment availability in professional occupations, the challenge of attracting professional talent is complicated by the need to provide not one, but two specialized jobs.

Many universities and large employers have recruitment policies specifically designed to support the spouses of new hires. McGill University, in Montreal for example, provides “…relocation assistance to the spouses of newly hired tenure-stream academic staff who are seeking academic or non-academic employment.” The details of these assistance arrangements are not publicized because each case is considered individually, but in some cases entirely new positions have been created to accommodate the needs of a spouse.

At the local level, these types of private arrangements don’t seem palatable, but what else may be done to support the recruitment of the Professor Smiths of this world, especially to smaller rural communities? And perhaps equally important, what can be done to attract Professor Smith’s spouse? The economic fortunes of places can turn on a dime. As local workforce development initiatives continue to evolve, it is important to focus on developing programs that will accommodate the needs of the whole family, including job alternatives, self-employment or training for spouses, daycare and education for children.

The success of local talent attraction efforts will depend on the availability of sound programs that address the needs of a whole family.