Our young new mayor reflects a maturing Pittsburgh

Editorials featured in the Forum section are solely the opinions of their individual authors.

The death of Bob O’Connor, one of the city’s most influential and energetic leaders, is certainly a tragedy, but the installation of 26-year-old Luke Ravenstahl as mayor has the potential to be a great windfall for the city. As the new face of Pittsburgh, Ravenstahl is excited about using his youth to change people’s minds about the city. But how will he use his position to actually change Pittsburgh?

Though Ravenstahl has not made many policy decisions yet, a reccurring theme in interviews has been a commitment to making the city more attractive to young job seekers. He told The New York Times: “Pittsburgh has 50,000 college students, and our challenge is to figure out how to retain them and to increase downtown development.”

The young mayor, though his plans are not concrete, has suggested increasing opportunities for internships as a method of retaining college grads. Growing the number and scope of internship opportunities is a fine goal, but internships are by their nature short-lived; they are stepping stones to other places. He shouldn’t just increase the internship market or the job market, but increase the career market. Doing so requires a dynamic understanding of Pittsburgh’s untapped resources. Pittsburgh is a place rich with innovative ideas and entrepreneurial spirit. How can he take that potential energy and harness it to the benefit of the city? By providing graduates with a decent place to work and decent place to live.

Many companies have come already — Google, Apple, and Intel, to name a few. Pittsburgh’s impressive technological base has taken almost three decades to build, but technology-oriented degrees do not account for a majority of all degrees handed out at our major universities. Technology alone will not support this city the way the steel did in the first half of the last century for the simple reason that few Pittsburgh residents and graduates can participate in the technological sector. Thousands upon thousands of Pittsburghers had a hand in steel and manufacturing. It is time to work on diversifying the career market to allow more people to search for opportunities.

Opportunities exist in Pittsburgh already. It is not as if the mayor would have to drag workplaces here and begin building an economy from scratch. We have hospitals, some of the best in the nation. In addition, outside of New York and Chicago, Pittsburgh is one of the top cities for corporate headquarters. Moreover, Pittsburgh is known nationwide for its premier financial services industry. The new mayor must create connections between these local assets and the 50,000 college graduates he speaks of — not just in terms of fleeting internships, but in terms of long-lasting, well-paying career opportunities. He must forge partnerships and work to open up opportunities for graduates in Pittsburgh’s budding industries. He should even work to open up new industries and opportunities so that the budding humanists, artists, and social scientists don’t feel like they must flee after their four years are up. And he does not have to limit his target audience to that one figure — 50,000 graduates. Thousands of graduates who grew up in Pittsburgh could be attracted back with solid career opportunities as well.

Hopefully his campaign to retain graduates will also focus on the fact that Pittsburgh is a great place to live. In 2005, The Economist ranked Pittsburgh as one of the most livable cities in America. Based on culture, climate, crime rates, cost of living, and health care, the ranking says a lot about the city. There is no reason that our relatively safe city with a low cost of living, respected cultural institutions, and a decent (if unpredictable) climate should not be able to attract college graduates — unless, of course, there is nothing for them to do in that city because there aren’t any jobs.

The framework is in place — many businesses in various fields have found Pittsburgh a great place to settle. But we need more. If the new mayor is committed to stemming the “brain drain” and helping Pittsburgh grow, then he needs also to be committed to opening up new industries and creating new opportunities so that a greater percentage of graduates feel like they can make a future here. We have a unique opportunity for change. There is no one better to project the image of youthful vitality in a city than a young and determined leader.