Economic development, big game trophies and missing workers

This post is edited from a musing written by my good friend Bill Lutz, who has show up in these pages before here and here.   I was deeply impressed by the way Bill captured the essence of the conflict that faces economic development today — and set it in the framework of ongoing generational change, which is an issue close to his heart (and mine), and one that I hadn’t connected the way he has.

We all need to have our eyes wide open about how the world is changing around us, especially if we are old enough to have gotten comfortable with the status quo.  As a Gen Xer, I find myself straddling two increasingly divergent views of the world — views that are firmly ensconces among people ten years older, and ten years younger, than I am.  In my professional life, I don’t see this division as pronounced anywhere as it is in the world of economic development.  Even with all the talk about economic gardening and the

fissure in the ground
fissures: they grow under stress.

importance of recruitment and retention, too often the actions of professionals in the field, on the ground, reflect old and unspoken assumptions about what a community needs for its economy.  I wrote last week about how deep and meaningful change requires that we break through our old paradigms, and while that’s never easy, the economic development field seems to be having a particularly hard time of it.

I believe that we as a nation and as communities are in the midst of a zeitgeist shift, one that I continue to hope makes a Wise Economy more and more achievable.  But to make that shift, we have to think ahead and have the wisdom, and the bravery, to make it happen.

For another interesting read on the generational and economic sea changes we’re living throughfissure, check out Fast Company’s recent series on Generation Flux:


Last month, Tipp City collected a major win in the game of economic development.  Abbott Labs, the makers of nutritional supplements, decided to build a new production plant for one of their products in this small community.  The project will lead to the building of a new $270 million facility and create in excess of 200 jobs.  These are substantial and impressive figures.

Each week, I have the chance to drive by the new home of Abbott Labs on my way to church and each week there is more and more progress on this massively large building.  But as I drive by the building, I can’t help but think if this facility is creating the jobs our future employees will want.  Yet again, is any project that promises hundreds of jobs creating the jobs future employees will want?  I know it’s almost sacrilegious to ask such questions in the heartland of American manufacturing, but these are important questions to ask.

Ask anyone currently working with those in manufacturing and it is not uncommon to hear a refrain that there are not enough people filling the jobs that are out there.  It sounds counter intuitive given the relatively high unemployment rates that currently exist.  Looking at those that are younger, the unemployment rates are even higher.

The big question begs to be asked: why can’t these businesses find people to do these jobs, even when the unemployment rate is so high?  Many postulate the work ethic of younger workers isn’t where it should be.  Some business executives say when their new employees clock in for their first day of work at 8:00 a.m. some leave at lunch and never come back.

Personally, I think it’s too convenient to blame this generation’s perceived lack of work ethic.  I am convinced that each generation has the same proportion of unmotivated, lazy and unproductive people.  I am sure my grandfather’s generation thought my father’s generation was a bunch of slack-jawed hippies that couldn’t carry their own weight.

What I am convinced is that the jobs we are creating aren’t the types of jobs the next generation wants or needs.

If you read a broad cross-section of the regional and national press about economic development issues, two themes  emerge pretty consistently these days:

#1:  Economic developers all across the country are tripping over themselves to get big businesses to come to town — and often throwing a lot of money at them in the hopes that this will make something happen.

#2: Young job seekers aren’t interested in working for big corporate conglomerates. There’s growing evidence, and there has been for a decade or more, that post-Boomer workers are looking for something very different from the Organization Man model that most corporations still hew to in theory, even if the promises of that employment are no longer reliable.

Take those two statements together, and you get a very different sense of where the problem lies.

The post-Boomer generations of worker grew up in turbulent times.  More than likely they saw their parents, or other older adults they knew lose their jobs during the corporate restructuring that was all the rage in the 1980s.  Those folks had been told that theirs were supposed to be career jobs, but it didn’t turn out that way.

In part due to the lack of these jobs, many in this generation grew up with their mothers going to work leading to another generational phenomenon: the latchkey kid.  These were the kids that came home from school to an empty house and it was in these few hours a day that these kids learned to be self-reliant.

So can we surprised when we see the most talented of this generation of self-reliant individuals reject the job offers of big business when they come to town, or don’t last when they discover what a mismatch there is between their guts and these places?

Post-Boomer workers demand to be flexible and agile.  They want to continually build new skills and new abilities, and if necessary,  they are willing to do it on their own.  These workers aren’t interested in signing up for a job, only to be pigeon-holed in a dead end with the ever-present risk of a pink slip handing over their head.

The fact of the matter is that economic developers are, by and large, playing a game that hasn’t changed much in the last 30 years.  Attraction and recruitment is still a big part of the economic development game, the major effort still goes into chasing the big game trophy, and communities keep getting stuck in the slow dance of big incentives and slick marketing.

Most importantly, this approach to economic development is often failing to help answer a bigger question:  Are the communities we live in attracting the jobs and careers we need to sustain our community’s  future?


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