Iris Dimmick

The downtown San Antonio city skyline is barely visible from the 20th floor of the Omni Hotel on this chilly November morning. James Russell looks out across the Medical District and 10 miles of neighborhoods, highways and hotels to the foggy city center.

The city is just waking up – in more ways than one.

Russell, an economic geographer, is in the final stages of completing an in-depth report on the “brain gain” phenomena in San Antonio. He has spent months consuming data about how San Antonio can harness what he calls the new “talent economy.” Where college-educated migrants come from, what jobs they hold, which neighborhoods attract them and what they like and dislike about the city are the questions at the center of his research. Yesterday he shared his preliminary findings and advice to various leaders in business, education and city government at a Texas CEO Magazine speaker series breakfast.

James Russell and the sprawl
James Russell and the sprawl. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

“This is a key time for a few cities to get ahead,” Russell said. “Talent production and export is how (San Antonio) will do it … by focusing on how smart your workforce is.”

Since its #4 ranking in 2008 by NewGeography‘s   American Community Survey analysis, San Antonio has been closely looming around the top 10 cities for in-migration of residents with a bachelor’s degree or higher. Russell attributes this to San Antonio’s high rate of return migration, people coming back to live in their home-city after successfully venturing off into the world as a young adult. And when they do come back, they’re bringing their college-educated spouses – and eventually their friends – with them.

Russell’s previous report [PDF] on talent migration, released last August, showed an ironic migration, “The city center is bleeding population, but it’s gaining those that have college degrees.”

According to the 2010 U.S. Census, the city’s college-educated population grew by 48 percent from 2000 to 2010,  making it sixth best of the nation’s top 51 metro areas in a Brain Gain ranking.

[Read our coverage: San Antonio: A City Getting Smarter, Working to Shed Old Image]

While it seems like a bad thing to see so many young, college-educated people leave San Antonio, there is a current trend that indicates they’ll be back to raise a family and contribute to the local economy again.

“Its counterintuitive,” he said, “Not only are we going to let our best and brightest go, we’re going to ship them away.”

Even if the city could, Russell said, you don’t really want to stop young people from leaving town. We do, however, need to give them a good reason to come back.

“We have a generation that wants anything but the suburbs and San Antonio has that in spades,” he said – but it’s more than urban amenities. Young, talented professionals are seeking economic development in an authentic environment.

Job Sprawl in San Antonio
Job Sprawl in San Antonio: The shading shows where the residents of the Top Inmigration Tracts work. Image courtesy of James Russell.

San Antonio has a few challenges to overcome before taking full advantage of the talent economy. One of the biggest: “bubbles.”

What Russell used to call “silos” before hearing the term “The Trinity Bubble,” are basically isolated neighborhoods that are cut-off from one another in and around the center city. This can describe how some Trinity University students feel about living in San Antonio: that they don’t live in San Antonio – they live in The Trinity Bubble. While it makes sense for industry to cluster together, for people it stunts the flow of knowledge and ideas from person to person.

“You’re getting this great talent – new and old – but it’s diffused,” Russell said. A large part of taking advantage of the talent economy is “making sure that talent is connected.”

Housing will continue to be an important piece to connectivity.

“Too often we see talent being forced out because of cost of living,” Russell said.

The real estate community is going to have to start understanding the needs of these return-migrants by paying attention to what they’re looking for, he said. The answer is not necessarily high-end lofts and condos downtown.

Graham Weston (left), Rackspace chairman, and James Russell, geographer.
Graham Weston (left), Rackspace chairman, and James Russell, talent economy geographer.

“The raw material of South Texas is our young people,” said Graham Weston, Chairman and Co-Founder of San Antonio-based Rackspace. Weston’s 80/20 Foundation sponsored Russell’s study, and helped moderate the morning’s discussion.

Many industries are now following educated workers to their colleges, so San Antonio universities need to start producing highly specialized workers, Weston said.

“When a (company like) Google moves to a campus, they’re not there for general talent, they’re there for specialized talent,” Weston said, “Universities want to be known for something – what do you want to be famous for?”

Weston found the data from Russell’s first report surprising and encouraging.

“I really thought that the data would show that we were losing brain power,” Weston said. “This means that rather than building from a declining foundation, we build from strength.”

The investment in a return-migration of young people means returns will only come in the long term – possibly a generation, but San Antonio is already showing signs of  this migrational trend.

James Russell (left), geographer, and Darryl Byrd, CEO of SA2020.
James Russell (left), geographer, and Darryl Byrd, CEO of SA2020 discuss the implications of Russell’s brain gain study after the discussion on Thursday. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

“It might be that we could do nothing and it’ll happen on its own, really,” Russell said. “When hipsters start to get wise to the assets here … you’re going to beat them away with a stick.”

The opportunities of taking advantage of this unique situation is too great to ignore, said SA2020 CEO Darryl Byrd after the formal discussion period. He likened big cities to stage performances: In some cities, like New York or Los Angeles, it’s hard to break into an industry. The stage has already been designed. The cast has been picked months before you arrived. You have to know a guy to just get to the set.

But not in San Antonio, Byrd said: “In this city you can be the actor.”

For more information about James Russell’s experience, methodology or economic geography in general, visit his frequently-updated blog: Burgh Diaspora.

Watch Thursday morning’s discussion in its entirety at NOWCastSA.

Iris Dimmick is managing editor of the Rivard Report. Follow her on Twitter @viviris or contact her at

Senior Reporter Iris Dimmick covers public policy pertaining to social issues, ranging from affordable housing and economic disparity to policing reform and mental health. She was the San Antonio Report's...