Election Spells Opportunity For Economic Development

Twitter wasn’t around when Truman beat Dewey in 1948, but I’m willing to bet that this year’s election results caused the biggest collective jaw-drop in at least the last century of presidential contests.

But even though the Presidential outcome was a shock, some of the causes aren’t new or surprising – among them, that “Main Street America” feels left behind. County by county, a wave of red spread across the heartland fueled by frustration in areas which have largely been left out of the 21st century economy.

The wounds of this election may take time to heal, but we can’t afford to stop striving – and part of the “work we are in” is extending economic opportunity to more communities across rural and small town Indiana.

Think about this: after the last recession, just twenty counties in the U.S. accounted for the majority of all new business start-ups in the United States. 99 percent of all new (post-recession) jobs have been created in counties with populations in excess of half-million.

Indianapolis has gained tech jobs at a rate 2X faster than our peer cities over the last 5 years. We are ranked in the TOP 20 in life sciences, advanced manufacturing and energy employment, yet this growth is concentrated in a handful of counties.

In general, the trend shows people and businesses are moving to bigger urban areas. The largest hundred metro regions are now home to two-thirds of the U.S. population, and produce more than two-thirds of our economic output.

Indiana has 92 counties. The ones that are part of a metropolitan area are doing ok (metro Indianapolis accounts for 70% of the state’s growth on its own). But what about the others?

This is the challenge facing Governor-elect Holcomb, local elected officials, economic development agencies in those communities – and most urgently, the people and employers who face an uncertain future.

Opportunity exists outside our larger cities. The same study that ranked Indy 20th in ‘advanced industry’ jobs ranks Indiana second in recent job growth in these high-tech sectors.  Smaller communities need a strategy to seize their share of this trend.

A good plan starts with the basics. Desirable neighborhoods, good schools and economic opportunity create a perfect storm for communities. This combination has become more critical, as we have watched the luring of out-of-state businesses to relocate to Indiana to have less impact, given the incentives and tax breaks created to get them here. We need to continue the momentum of focusing upon local innovation, cultivating our own talent. This effort alone will turn heads, attracting companies by our culture and a quality of life that helps them recruit and retain a productive workforce.

But building a workforce that makes growing employers take notice takes its own strategy; this is where storytelling and skill development become critical.

As a storyteller, I coach companies and people on effective pitching. A standard elevator pitch designed to attract or keep young talent may be just what a city or town needs. Suburban and rural areas are indeed desirable places to live, but they need to tell a more compelling story in a more powerful way. Local economic development organizations can’t just appeal to business executives with dry statistics and tax breaks; along with other public and civic groups, they have to cultivate a community brand and help tell a story that explains why they offer a wonderful place to live and do business.

Colleges and universities create attractive communities, yet at least half of Indiana’s science, advanced manufacturing and tech jobs do not require a bachelor’s degree.* While education is a great idea, it’s not the only option and there are plenty of groups who are disrupting this space. Attracting elite talent to fill small towns does not have to be the goal, what is needed is a strategy to upgrade skills to meet employer demand, to inspire innovation, and to create an ecosystem to foster those ideas – rooting them where they can flourish. A local push to become part of Indiana’s automotive or orthopedic supply chain, for example, may depend more on associate’s degrees rather than advanced degrees. Or no degree, as is the case with coding schools such as Eleven Fifty Academy who can prepare someone for a high-paying job in less than six months, including an internship.

The momentum is going in the right direction. We just need a constructive plan to help lift our entire state, especially those counties that are the outliers.

“You were sick, but now you’re well, and there’s work to do.” – Vonnegut, Timequake

*Brookings Institute: Indianapolis has 3 of the top 4 fastest growing Tech occupations that do not require a bachelor’s degree: systems support, network administrator, and coders. These are career paths for anyone.

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