The column was finished. Drafted twice, self-edited a handful of times, written again, and finally sent off to the incomparable Mike Cutillo. It’s not an unusual process for one of these columns. While I try not to spend days — or even hours — agonizing over individual words, the over-arching message is the part that gets crafted, modified, re-worked, and polished before hitting “send.”
The topic was not an unfamiliar one: Economic development. I’ve learned over the last six years that writing about economic development is almost as difficult as actually achieving it in some parts of this wonderful region.
The premise, or question, was simple enough: Why do we keep measuring the success of economic development through one metric? There are countless examples of economic development efforts getting hyper-focused on that metric — jobs — while losing track of other important performance indicators in the process.
About a week after the column was “finished,” I heard a line listening to “Planet Money,” an NPR radio show and podcast. “When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure.” It’s called Goodhart’s Law. It summed up my frustration with the existing economic development efforts in one simple line — leaving me with only one question: Why on earth are we still so obsessed with the number of jobs an economic developer has created?!
So, here I am re-writing this column (again!) trying to identify the handful of steps that could be taken that would get economic developers away from job-counting. It starts with the two biggest complaints people have about economic development efforts, in general: 1) Cost to taxpayers; and 2) Job jockeying between communities.
The first is simple: Taxpayers are frequently frustrated by economic developers’ willingness to “give away” their money to businesses of any size via tax breaks and incentives.
The second is a little more complicated but every bit as justified: If a handful of jobs are being created but that creation amounts only to the relocation of existing jobs from another location, what’s the net gain?
It should be the job of economic developers to sell their community to site selectors. But luring jobs from other, perhaps nearby communities, for the sake of job-counting is short-sighted and fundamentally flawed. It also creates a lot of “waste” in terms of time, energy, and resources of these economic developers.
So now, we get back to the heart of the original column: What, then, should these developers focus on?
1) Align workforce with existing opportunities:
Simple, right? Professional, trade, and everything in-between should be represented in a concise place. Economic developers need to take the lead because site selectors aren’t going to choose communities with businesses that are already starved for employees.
This effort needs to go way beyond hiring fairs, online job boards, or lectures at local schools. There are high school and college grads looking for opportunities who can’t find them because the existing methods for finding jobs are a mess. In fact, if you talk to recent hires, or those in the job-search market, they all agree that word of mouth is the most effective tool for finding workers.
2) Become a marketing machine:
I’ve listened to elected officials, economic development pros, and even average taxpayers complain that there isn’t enough good news about their community. It begs the question I heard posed at an economic development meeting in one community years ago: “How can we expect anyone to come here if all they see when they Google us is dozens of arrest reports from local police agencies?”
It’s not your local newspaper’s fault that it isn’t writing as many “feel good” stories about your town as you might like. Journalism is not a PR strategy, and reporters are not your local PR consultants.
It’s time to get aggressive — leveraging social media, traditional outlets, and every other means possible to tell good stories, and out-SEO the competition. It also means getting aggressive with opening the door to dialogue. Not just between economic developers and site selectors or business owners. Everything from marketing job opportunities, to announcements, and highlight reels of great locations and opportunities for development. Everything has to be on the table.
3) Don’t become beautifully obsolete:
There’s a lot to be said for this region. It’s gorgeous. It’s a great place to call home. It needs all the essentials. That must be part of any comprehensive economic development strategy. Essential service — like viable public transportation, water, sewer, and high speed broadband — is an absolute must. That requires spending in some of the more rural communities in the region, but if they are expected to remain viable over the next two decades, it’s not optional.
4) Focus on creating the ecosystem:
Economic development has to be about creating the ecosystem for a healthy economy. That means creating an environment that can be viable for every taxpayer, business, and visitor.