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Philadelphians discuss how to create a smarter city

One Pew researcher says lack of youth and low level of educational attainment is a big drag on this "skilled anchor" region.

In an auditorium at the National Constitution Center Tuesday filled with people ready to talk about "smarter cities," I felt a little dumb.

After all, I've heard many of the same entreaties from Mayor Nutter, the Greater Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce and others over the last two years.

They seemed to be merely rehashing them at a forum sponsored by IBM, which has been holding the wonky program in other cities.

Still, it was useful to listen to Larry Eichel, project director of the Pew Charitable Trusts' Philadelphia Research Initiative, deconstruct the region's new label as a "skilled anchor."

If you haven't read the Brookings Institution's State of Metropolitan America report, you should give it a skim. That's where the "skilled anchor" description comes from. Brookings says such areas are slow growing, less diverse but with high educational attainment.

Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Boston and 16 other Northeastern and Midwestern cities are lumped into that category. All are former manufacturing powers with significant ports and are now dominated by the services sector, particularly higher education and medical institutions.

The "Next Frontier," "Border Growth" and four other categories that the nonprofit Brookings has dreamed up to describe regions by the demographic and economic characteristics they share aim to retire the Rust Belt, Bible Belt and all the other belts.

Anchors are big, heavy things that sink to the bottom when they're thrown overboard. Philadelphia has been called worse things over the years.

While the the "eds and meds" sector provides much stability to our economy, Eichel said the region's educational attainment generally underperforms the nation as a whole.

Of those 25 and older, 21 percent living in the city have a bachelor's degree compared with a national average of 28 percent, according to Brookings. In some cities (read: Boston), that percentage is more than 40 percent.

In an area with 92 colleges and universities, there must be many young people who could stick around after graduation, right?

But the city is old and getting older. The demographic sweet spot that all cities would love to attract and tax is the 25- to 34-year-old age group. Boston, once again, draws 19.3 percent of its population from that fountain of youth, while Austin, Texas, is close behind at 19.0 percent.

Philadelphia ranked 84th out of 100 cities with only 12.8 percent of its residents from the age group most capable of hoisting a skilled anchor. That puts the city on par with Detroit; Dayton, Ohio; and Buffalo, N.Y. "Not the most dynamic of company to be in," Eichel said.

So what appeals to the 25- to 34-year-olds? Desirable urban lifestyle and the availability of job opportunities. Eichel said we're one for two on that count. Employment in the city slumped to 651,000 jobs in 2009, after three flat years at the 662,000 level.

Now the financial crisis and economic recession prompted employers to wipe away those jobs. But when you look at how Philadelphia's employment base has responded after previous recessions, that decline doesn't bode well.

After the recession that ended March 1991, employment in the city decreased from 713,900 to 667,500 in 1997, when it then reversed and climbed for three straight years. However, it peaked at 695,900 in 2000, undershooting its 1991 level. That pattern held after the short 2001 recession.

Those at the Constitution Center on Tuesday discussing ways to make Philadelphia a smarter city hope new jobs will result.

But can the hospitals and universities that account for 32 percent of the city's current labor force really continue to expand at the pace they have for the last decade? I don't see how that's possible.

If anything, working smarter often means doing more with less. And unfortunately, that's a condition with which Philadelphia is very familiar.