Pittsburgh’s new immigrants equal brain gain

May 27, 2012. An article by Christine H. O’Toole. Excerpt –

Census data show the Pittsburgh metro region dead last among 15 peers in foreign-born population. With 73,443 foreign-born citizens, the region has half the international population of Charlotte, N.C., which has 1 million fewer residents. Pittsburgh’s foreign-born population is a fifth that of Detroit and 13 percent the international population of Philadelphia, both more populous Metropolitan Statistical Areas.

But recent Brookings Institution analysis reveals that the region is another kind of outlier: Though only 3 percent of the region’s residents are foreign born, they comprise the most highly skilled immigrant group in the entire country, with a concentration of expertise in science and engineering. Like Mr. Rimal, more than 53 percent (30,542) hold a bachelor’s degree or higher.

The two distinctions suggest that Pittsburgh has completed its transition to an “eds and meds” economy, driven by the universities and health care industry, but has yet to find the robust growth across sectors that would pull more immigrants to the region.Many of Pittsburgh’s peer regions face the same dilemma. The Brookings report noted the “very high concentration of high-skilled immigrants in older industrial metro areas in the Midwest and Northeast such as Albany [N.Y.], Buffalo, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, St. Louis and Syracuse [N.Y.].” The ratio of highly skilled immigrants for Detroit and Milwaukee, other benchmark regions, are equally strong.

A recent Fiscal Policy Institute study of the issue correlates the two phenomena. “It’s not so much that metro Pittsburgh has a very large number of high-skilled immigrants as that immigration overall is comparatively low,” concludes report author David Dyssegaard Kallick. “In a booming metro area, both higher- and lower-skilled immigrants will be part of the economic picture.”

Viewed through the lens of long-term economic growth, Pittsburgh’s blue-chip immigrants are an unquestioned asset. But its future strengths may not rely solely on the STEM researchers, high-tech entrepreneurs and medical experts, but on the families now struggling to achieve a foothold in the region. The Brookings Institution report, titled “The Geography of Immigrant Skills,” notes that nationally, many highly educated immigrants like Mr. Rimal are underemployed.