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What If? Growing Pittsburgh’s Population is an Imperative

Thought Leader
By Audrey Russo, President and CEO, Pittsburgh Technology Council There are many terms Pittsburgh regional leaders are using these days when it comes to growing and engaging our population: “We are at an inflection point;” “We must be a Pittsburgh for all;” “We cannot leave people behind;” “Leadership doesn’t reflect our population.” These are all with good intentions, but perhaps not near-term and executable enough. Instead, I suggest that we first look at raw data, about our region’s trends and U.S. trends. Let’s focus on a plan that ensures cohesive and measurable execution that ensures that the three-plus decades of work in technology and innovation do not atrophy as the world moves at a pace which will leave us wondering what evaporated during our period of resurrection. The last decade has been filled with our appearance on top lists. We have seen growth in tech, mostly research and development outposts and early stage companies. It is easy enough to look backwards. Not easy to leap forward, however facts may help frame this. We have to look at population growth patterns. We have to stare at these numbers. We have to compare ourselves with other cities and their regions. We have to ask ourselves hard, daunting questions. We have to question why other cities are growing, some explosively, others steadily with a positive uptick. USA Today released on March 19, 2019, the fastest-shrinking cities in the U.S. and, while Pittsburgh did not land on this top-25 ranking, seven out of the 25 are in our CSA (Commuting Statistical Area). If you pair this southwestern Pennsylvania/West Virginia region with Pittsburgh/Allegheny County, from 2010 through 2017, we can visualize the dramatic impact of population loss around concentric circles from the epicenter of Pittsburgh. If our region is shrinking in population, it becomes tough to support our airport. If our region is shrinking, it is impossible to build a tax base that supports the amenities that make our global footprint create a global community. Pittsburgh’s population declined from 305,391 in 2010 to 302,407 in 2017. Allegheny County’s population increased from 1,224,000 in 2010 to 1,280,000 in 2017. And if we look at one entire generation from 2000 – 2017, Pittsburgh had 333,595 in 2000 and Allegheny County had 1,274,000. We can add in the growth of Butler and Westmoreland counties, but these include small proportionate percentages that do not move the region materially positive. Now let’s look at U.S. outmigration patterns and what has been happening across the country. From 2010 through 2017, 9.5% of all moves in the U.S. were attributed to new job or job transfer. That’s the approximately 3.3 million job-related moves a year. If the Pittsburgh region would have had 1% of these moves/jobs over this same period of time, we could assume 231,000 people moving into our region! We are nowhere near that rate of growth. While we are pretty excited about the early employment and wage numbers for our upcoming annual State of the Industry Report, we are clearly seeing the deep chasm of increased wage earnings in tech-related jobs despite the population shrinkage and job vacancies for high-skilled positions. If we do not attract new businesses, aggressively support the growth of entrepreneurs and retain our college educated, as well as our high school students, we will soon begin to see a decline in our population. This will stymie the progress we have made over the past decade in attracting research and development outposts of the newer economy companies. Our fighting chance is to work to attract global companies to locate their strategic presence in Pittsburgh -- close to our universities. We also need to help the universities launch their research into viable products. A vibrant and diverse urban core is a requirement for economic prosperity. Once immigration reforms occur, Pittsburgh must be well positioned to attract global citizens. The population shrinkage will cause ripple effects across our amenities that we take pride in now. All of us are marketers. All of us are storytellers. Any of us in businesses have few barriers and know too intimately the rapid pace of change. Ten years ago, I wrote about the importance of population and poised a challenge for us to add 5,000 people to the region each year -- net positive. I like working on targets. Imagine if we had added 50,000 people to our region, what impact would that have now? What if we made a collective effort to retain 20% of our students here year over year? What if we made sure that every resident in our region knew about job opportunities and knew that there were possibilities to build one chapter of their lives in Pittsburgh? What if we worked to have every high school student to have two internship experiences with local companies and organizations as part of their core curriculum before they graduated? What if we took an oath, a pact that Pittsburgh was a place where regional citizenship means all students are part of the fabric of all companies? What if we ignored all the social media fanfare about Pittsburgh and just do what we do really well – build companies that solve complex problems and make the world better. That is our legacy. That should be our future.