Job summits do not provide transformative change

Posted July 28, 2011, at 4:07 p.m.

The job summits are coming.

As national elections loom and unemployment continues to hover near 10 percent nationally and 7.6 percent in Maine, we will start to see a cycle of gatherings and events aimed at finding an answer to the question, “How do we create more jobs?” Many of those seeking election or re-election will use job summits as platforms to find a solution to the ongoing recession.

In the past I have had the opportunity to design, develop and deliver job summits. They generally offer suggestions for changes to legislation, regulations, taxation and incentives in order to increase private job creation. Job summits are not the silver bullet for private job creation. It is important that we understand that economic development and job creation are more a product of market business climate than job summits.

We tend to see economic activity through political boundaries. Last week some of the cable news shows suggested that job creation success in Texas was due not to a Republican governor, but to Obama administration-sponsored Recovery Act funds. At the same time, the dramatic challenges facing New York and Massachusetts were due to the “Bush” spending in Washington.

The point is that geography and political boundaries have marginal effects on job creation. We are caught in a global economic change, which is rapid and is challenging our basic economic foundations. Instead of waiting for Washington or Augusta to announce their latest job summit, regions need to develop networks of collaborative organizations with private sector leadership that build new opportunities based upon the region’s assets.

Successful models are spread throughout our nation. There are places where investment occurs because there are assets that have value to the marketplace. Value-added production and “creative economy” activities are what many successful regions exploit. When we build upon the capacity of research and development, educational institutions and entrepreneurs, the potential for business to expand increases. Businesses can sell their products and services because the entire region offers support through its assets and has created a critical mass of workers who have the skill set to advance the business opportunity.

Job summits most often ask many questions of businesses: When will you grow your business? What are the barriers to your growth? What changes in laws and regulations would encourage you to expand and create jobs? As our elected officials continue to be under pressure to create jobs, more job summits will take place. And many traditional institutions will act in a similar manner.

We need to change the tactic to confront the new economic conditions facing each of us. What are our assets and how do we grow them? Instead of job summits we should encourage summits based upon economic clusters and sectors that provide the region with a competitive advantage and, hopefully, sustainable lifespan. We should seek summits that build generational opportunity and are truly transformative. Providing quick fixes and short-term jobs may help now but will not build a solid economic foundation for the future.

Michael W. Aube is president of Eastern Maine Development Corporation in Bangor. He is a past commissioner of Maine’s Department of Economic and Community Development and former state director of Maine USDA Rural Development.

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