What I Learned at the White House
On August 5th, I had the privilege of joining an elite group of economic development professionals from around the U.S. at the White House Business Council’s Forum on Economic Development. Some 58 attendees from 25 states and the District of Columbia took part in the all-day event at the Old Executive Office Building in Washington, DC.
The event was an opportunity for professional economic developers on the front lines of their field to weigh in on U.S. economic policies and programs. Federal government officials staffed the event, listening closely and scribbling notes as we spoke. The Forum was organized with help from the International Economic Development Council (IEDC), a Washington, D.C.-based professional association I’ve long been active in. Robert Van Geons, executive director of the Salisbury-Rowan Economic Development Commission, was the only other attendee from North Carolina.
The Forum was a two-way dialogue, with briefings and presentations from top economic policymakers from across numerous cabinet departments and White House offices. We shared perspectives about the state of the economy, about hidden challenges, untapped resources and possible solutions for unlocking U.S. job growth.
Here’s what I learned:
- Federal government economists are forecasting 1.6 percent growth in the U.S. economy this year, though they expect that growth in 2015 to be a healthier 3 percent. But it was a deeper dive into the numbers that really offered encouragement. Right now, the nation’s manufacturing output is growing at twice the rate of the overall economy, officials reported. While that’s dollar-based production, not job growth, it’s still good news for several Research Triangle Region counties that have strong manufacturing bases.
- How can the U.S. sustain its current manufacturing renaissance? Policy makers are considering some interesting options. One possibility is tapping the vast intellectual capital of the nation’s federal research labs. There are 39 U.S. government-funded R&D centers around the country, engaged in projects ranging from aerospace to software engineering. There may be a way to unlock the value of these facilities in a way that sharpens the edge of our manufacturing economy.
- The government, by law, collects a sea of business and commercial data. But most of it is simply warehoused and never gleaned for actionable economic insight. Officials at the U.S. Department of Commerce would like to change that. By examining government-gathered data more closely, investors, entrepreneurs and economic developers could identify hidden business opportunities. Right now, for example, there is a vast store of information waiting to be converted into market intelligence by globally-minded businesses weighing foreign direct investment (FDI) and trade opportunities. Given our region’s expertise and leadership in data-mining and business analytics, this is lucrative gap that companies, colleges and universities here could easily fill.
- We are still struggling as a nation to integrate workforce readiness programs into our economic development strategies. That the nation is simultaneously struggling with lackluster job growth and a dearth of qualified applicants for many positions is ample evidence of a disconnect between educators and businesses. In the Knowledge Age, talent has emerged as the primary production factor, the fuel that powers today’s economy. Businesses of all sizes should exert the necessary leadership in folding workforce development and economic development into a single policy framework.
- There is a wealth of federal resources available for entrepreneurs, but they are largely unknown and untapped. In addition to the programs of the U.S. Small Business Administration, there are 21 other federal agencies and offices that operate services designed to support small firms and start-ups. In 2006, the U.S. government launched business.usa.gov in order to unite small-business assistance under a single virtual roof. But economic development officials speaking at the Forum said federal resources remain underutilized. This tells me there’s a powerful well of innovation and energy trapped beneath the surface of our economy.
- It’s been several years since the Recovery Act ended, but infrastructure building remains a priority for the federal government. The U.S. Economic Development Administration continues to direct grant funds into industrial parks, broadband access, natural gas lines, water and wastewater works, access roads and other basic infrastructure. Hard assets clearly remain important in today’s world, and federal grant dollars should be a key component in the every economic developer’s toolkit.
It was encouraging to see the government’s top policy makers sharing ideas, listening to and learning from those of us in the trenches of our country’s quest for jobs and prosperity. I was proud to represent the Research Triangle Region and look forward to remaining part of this important national dialogue.