Joel Kotkin on the Brain Belt

I had a thought provoking conversation with Mike Colwell, the Executive Director of the Business Innovation Zone in Des Moines Iowa. I was reminded of  Joel Kotkin’s “Little Startup on the Prairie” which has a section on “The Rise of the Brain Belt” (which builds on his earlier “The U. S. Brain Belt“) that outlines some other sources of opportunity:

The Rise of the Brain Belt

Perhaps even more important to the revival of the Heartland may be the growth of high-technology services and communications, energy production, manufacturing and warehouses as the critical levers for new employment and wealth creation. Only 10 percent of rural Americans live on farms and only 14 percent of the rural workforce is employed in farming. The area’s future clearly lies in the continued expansion of other industries.

The key to this growth is not merely cheap energy or labor; it’s the quality of the workforce. Although these areas are often seen as lacking in educated workers, many rural regions of the country—from New England to the Great Plains and even parts of the Sierras—actually have a surplus of skilled labor. The basis of this surplus lies in the high level of education among young people in many Heartland states. In virtually every measurement, students in key rural states—particularly the Dakotas, Iowa, Nebraska and Kansas—tend to perform better than those in more urbanized ones, as measured by graduation rates, college attendance and enrollment in high-level science and education programs.

In essence, these young people make the Heartland the nation’s Brain Belt, but for generations the problem has been that many of these talented younger people have tended to leave for opportunities elsewhere. Today, new dynamics, such as the worsening congestion and cost pressures in the nation’s major urban regions, may be slowing this phenomenon. Perhaps more importantly, advances in telecommunications and transportation are helping to break down the traditional sense of isolation, intellectually and culturally, that has hampered the development of the sophisticated industries necessary to lure educated workers back to rural areas.

According to researcher Sean Moore, between 1990 and 2000 the percentage of rural counties with a “skills surplus” dropped 14 percent, compared to only 6 percent for metropolitan counties, meaning that educated workers are now finding jobs. As Moore suggests, this reflects a shift in the location of information, business service and other technology-related business to the periphery. The Internet is rapidly diminishing the traditional near monopoly of information that throughout history has belonged to the metropolis; today a farmer, a securities dealer, a machine shop proprietor or a software writer in a small town enjoys the same access to the latest market and technical information as someone located in midtown Manhattan or Silicon Valley.

There is another version here

I also blogged about the Brain Belt in Federated Entrepreneurship in January 2010

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