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The Mount Rainier factor isn’t enough to retain intellectual ‘capital’

1:37 pm January 11th, 2013

By Michael Luis
Residents of the Northwest, natives and newcomers alike, never tire of boasting about the region’s high quality of life. And this is nothing new. Promotional literature from 100 years ago describes natural beauty and recreational opportunities in the same terms we use today. The “Mount Rainier Factor” has been around for a very long time.
Indeed, ask a recent transplant what they like about the area and you will usually get a list of amenities: sail and ski in the same day, and enjoy a very nice dinner between the two. Furthermore, we know that they probably did not come for the sunshine, the low cost of living and the smooth traffic. 
A central theme in  Century 21 City  is that the attraction and retention of highly talented people will continue to be the single most important factor driving the region’s economic success. Industry clusters grow because of the existence of parallel talent clusters, with the two feeding off each other in a virtuous cycle. And no matter how successful our state’s education systems might get, they will never be able to keep up with the demand in the region for world-class skills. 
As Harvard professor Rosabeth Moss Kanter describes it, building and maintaining talent clusters requires both “magnets and glue.” We know that the magnets consist of economic opportunity: most people migrate to accept a job. The glue–the sticky stuff that keeps people in the regional talent cluster after they leave the job that brought them here in the first place–is much trickier, but every bit as important.  
After all, much of the dynamism of our economy has come not from people who are happily working away at secure jobs they love, but from those who are restless and driving themselves and their employers crazy. Or from those who have just sprung loose from some spectacular failure. Or from those, as in the Boeing Bust, who find themselves on the street with a severance package and a big idea. The challenge, then, is to make sure these newly footloose people stay in the area and pursue their ambitions here. 
The first requirement, of course, is rich innovation ecosystems that nurture new businesses. But talented people in transition also need to feel that stickiness, which is where amenities and quality of life become big factors. 
Given the importance of the “glue,” it seems surprising that we have never really understood its chemical composition very well. A hardware store sells dozens of glues, each applicable to different materials, and, in the same way, various amenities appeal to different groups of people. Just as Elmer’s glue won’t stick to vinyl, outdoor recreation will have little appeal to a dedicated urbanite, and nightlife will not do much for a bookworm.  
Century 21 City discusses the general role that amenities and the quality of life play in the modern global metropolitan region, but points to the lack of solid data on specifics. We have lots of anecdotal evidence on why talented people come here, but not much more. And we don’t know two really important things. 
First, we don’t know anything about people who decide not to come here: the aerospace engineer who goes to Georgia or the biologist who goes to Boston or the software engineer who goes to Silicon Valley. Are their decisions strictly about employers or does the prospect of living in the Puget Sound region fail to excite them? Second, what about the people who leave? We don’t do exit interviews, so we don’t know what drives people away.
Given the central importance of talent attraction and retention, and given the intense competition the Puget Sound region faces in bringing the world’s best people here, the lack of hard data on preferences is surprising. We know a lot about what it takes to attract physical capital, but not much about what it takes to attract and, most importantly, hold onto intellectual capital. And tough as it might be to admit, Mount Rainier is not quite enough.

Michael Luis, the author of “Century 21,æ” is a consultant in public affairs and communications, based in the Seattle area. For the past 25 years he has been involved with efforts focused on the growth and development of the economy of the Seattle area. He is a council member and mayor of Medina.

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