Over the past decade, there’s been a big increase in economic development activity at the
regional level. But has this regional activity actually led to more and better jobs? I’ve concluded that the answer depends in part on where regional partnerships focus their efforts, and how closely connected they are to what’s actually happening on the ground.
Ten years ago, most regional partnerships focused primarily on marketing and branding the region to attract jobs and talent. But data from the National Establishment Time Series suggest that marketing and attraction activities accounted for only 1-2 percent of all new jobs created over the past decade.
So, many regional partnerships have been shifting their focus to growing jobs within the region. That commonly involves bringing together key stakeholders, analyzing the regional economy, identifying regional assets that support job growth, developing strategies to leverage those assets, and overseeing the implementation of those strategies.
I’ve studied many of those regional planning efforts and found they go a long way toward developing a deeper understanding of the dynamics of the region and its economy, and in building stronger relationships and greater alignment among key stakeholders in the region. But these planning efforts don’t always translate into more and better jobs. It turns out, that also requires a good ground game, which is sorely lacking in most regions.
By good ground game, I mean finding the businesses that have the most untapped potential to grow and working with them to unlock that growth potential. That requires personally interacting with those businesses, and delivering high-quality, just-in-time services tailored to their particular needs. Those activities are best carried out at the local level.
I’ve concluded that if that kind of blocking and tackling isn’t going on, or if it isn’t being done well, it’s unlikely that a regional planning process will have much impact on job growth, no matter what kind of regional structures are in place or how well they function.
One reason is because, in the absence of a good ground game, plans developed at the regional level are likely to be hit or miss. Analyzing large data sets can provide important information about where job growth is already taking place, but the only way to pinpoint which businesses have the most untapped potential to grow is to go door to door. Similarly, identifying regional assets can make it easier to see what kind of help is already available, but the only way to figure out what interventions would make the biggest difference is to look for patterns and trends in the information collected from businesses about what their needs are. That kind of information is in short supply in most regions.
Also, it’s important to remember that plans don’t create jobs. Regional plans and regional initiatives can help create the conditions for job growth, but the actual work of growing new jobs happens down in the trenches, helping individual businesses solve the problems that impede their growth.
It’s no different from a political campaign. Candidates spend a lot of their time conducting strategy sessions, issuing policy papers, holding rallies, and tracking polls. But at the same time, they also need people going door to door, identifying possible supporters, finding out what their needs are, and getting them to the polls on election day. In other words, they need a good ground game.
Ideally, these different aspects of a political campaign, each vitally important, end up reinforcing each other. In fact, focusing on one to the exclusion of the other can throw the whole campaign out of balance.
The same is true when it comes to creating jobs. If regional partnerships want to actually grow more jobs, not just track and report on what the market is doing on its own, their efforts need to be informed by and in turn support a good ground game.
Many of the regional leaders I work with have come to the same conclusion. But they are finding that, after years of neglect, their ground game is so weak and disorganized that it’s become their biggest constraint. In other words, they’ve gotten to the point where the key to realizing the full potential of their expanding economic development activities at the regional level is to build greater capacity at the local level. Go figure.
Pete Carlson is president of Regional Growth Strategies