Originally posted at Living Cities.
By Arthur Burris.
Even as U.S. unemployment numbers drop and GDP rises, job creation remains an issue. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, employment in the United States still lags behind its 2007 levels, and labor force participation is at its lowest point in more than 30 years. The picture is even bleaker for less-educated workers, with unemployment among Americans without a college diploma (7%) at more than twice the rate of unemployment among college graduates (3%). Meanwhile, the unemployment rate among African Americans (12.1% as of January 2014) more than doubles that of whites (5.7%).
Against that backdrop, cities are hungry to find ways to create more and better jobs for all their residents. And yet, many economic development practitioners acknowledge that currently prevailing practices will not deliver the number or quality of jobs that city residents need.
The need for more and better jobs is certainly not the only barrier to opportunity in cities. Cities must also prepare all their residents for existing opportunities, and ensure that residents can access the essentials (e.g., transportation, broadband) they need to take advantage of those opportunities. However, increasing the supply of opportunity is essential to ensuring that these other efforts yield results.
As we have considered what role Living Cities might play to help ensure that adequate job opportunities exist in cities, we’ve talked in recent months with some of the leading minds in local economic development around the country. Those conversations have surfaced three potential frontiers for the field:
1. Moving from planning to implementation. Promising examples are emerging as cities move away from more established approaches to more “asset-based” ones. Cities are cultivating clusters of related firms (e.g., aerospace, ecotourism); harnessing the economic power of local anchor institutions like universities and hospitals to create economic multipliers and new opportunities locally; and stepping up local export activity, an area where American businesses lag far behind their counterparts elsewhere. There have been some outstanding planning efforts and now the practitioners we’ve talked to are looking for ways to implement these plans at scale in their cities.
2. Rewiring “operating systems.” Even while local governments take innovative steps to create more and better jobs, local economic development agencies remain configured to support more traditional approaches. For example, economic development agencies are often staffed and resourced to support real-estate development and competition for relocating businesses. These practices can be effective in some cases (save for when competition for relocations becomes a regional “race to the bottom”), but they are by themselves unlikely to achieve the scale and breadth of impact that cities need. Moving to a “new normal” in this field will require reconfiguring the relationships, incentives, and resources applied to economic development. We are beginning to see examples of this rewiring in some respects, such as a growing number of regional public-private partnerships like the Los Angeles Regional Export Council and the CenterState Corporation for Economic Opportunity. Facilitating this rewiring within local government itself remains an area where further innovation is needed.
3. Increasing the opportunity supply for lower-skilled workers. Strategies like cluster development are seen in many cases as likely to primarily create jobs that require advanced credentials. We are seeing an evolution of strategies that prepare low-income people for and connect them to opportunities, such as Pittsburgh’s Urban Innovation 21, whose programs link community residents to the tech sector, and Cincinnati’s Partners for a Competitive Workforce, which links workforce development strategies to the industries of today and tomorrow. However, absent strategies that directly address the supply of quality local job opportunities for differing skill levels, job creation strategies could exclude low-income people as they evolve. We believe that the appetite in the field to address this challenge is growing and are looking for examples of efforts that point in the right direction.
We view the conversations we have been having on this topic as part of an ongoing dialogue, and so we invite readers to share their thoughts on how cities and other partners might advance these frontiers of practice.