SXSW Interactive: Through the Economic Development Looking Glass

April 11, 2014

By: Jon Roberts, Principal & Managing Director, TIP Strategies

Photo Credit: "SXSW Day 5" by Flickr user Tony Carr


March 11, 2014, marked the last day of this year’s SXSW Interactive. Austin’s premier tech event has grown steadily since its inception in 1994. One notable mark of its reach, that may be overlooked by the standard measure of badges sold and tourism dollars generated, is the heightened presence of economic development organizations at the festival.

The industry’s interest in SXSW was apparent from the number of US states and cities, as well as foreign cities, regions, and countries, that set up shop at SXSW, all vying for one of the most desired of economic development targets: tech start-ups and young entrepreneurs. No doubt about it, this tactic represents a sea change in what counts as credible economic development. Where in the past the profession’s holy grail was the relocation of a major manufacturing company, we now see a shift to technology and high growth start-ups (though manufacturing is still seen as the primary objective in many parts of the US). We’ll leave for another time a more thorough discussion of how successful these efforts are. (The short answer: it varies widely.) At one end of the scale is the possibility that bringing companies to SXSW will only speed their exodus from less tech-savvy regions to (you guessed it) Austin. At the other end is the ability to connect with and recruit entrepreneurs to new markets. My panel, “Start-up Grind: What Makes Austin a Startup Hub,” touched on these issues, as well as the question of what made Austin successful in the tech space.

Clearly, industry recruitment and expansion is not the stated objective of SXSW Interactive, nor is it likely to be the primary draw for most participants. As suggested by their mission statement—encapsulated in three values: creativity, innovation and inspiration—SXSW Interactive is about stepping outside your intellectual comfort zone. At a minimum, spending time in the presence of so many creative companies and individuals gives you an opportunity to rethink assumptions behind your business—even, and especially, at a fundamental level. From an economic development perspective, for example, this rethinking of assumptions raises the question of whether measuring success by jobs created is the best way to grow our economy. Abandoning this gold standard is, in some ways, analogous to growing a business without worrying about profitability. It’s a radical notion, and one that, on the face of it, makes no sense. Just don’t tell that to Amazon or to Facebook.

But testing one’s assumptions is not the whole of the SXSW experience. The real power of SXSW lies in what Tony Hsieh, of Zappos fame, calls collisions—connections that occur spontaneously and bring together individuals and companies that might never have connected before. The sheer number and variety of panels, speakers, and registrants makes this goal relatively easy to accomplish. It can be as simple as colliding with the AT&T team during the Ping-Pong tournament (and, in my case, losing to them) then learning what AT&T is doing, what their talent strategy is, and what their new product line will look like. If I’m busy “recruiting companies,” I miss out on these chance encounters; my agenda gets in the way of making real connections. Sometimes an indirect approach is the surer path towards one’s goal.

And even if you weren’t able to experience the randomness of SXSW, you couldn’t fail to miss this year’s driving theme. It was already apparent on the first day and gathered steam throughout the event: Internet privacy. First Julian Assange, via Skype from the Ecuadorian embassy in London, then Edward Snowden from an undisclosed location in Russia (routed through multiple ISPs). Whatever one’s political attitude towards Assange and Snowden, their message is coming through loud and clear and is being fully embraced by the tech crowd: privacy matters.

The question of Internet privacy has numerous dimensions. It is not exclusively governmental. It extends to transactional privacy with corporations and to the question of who owns our personal data (our Internet identity). The default answer should not be that this information is “owned” by corporations or the government (or health care providers). We—it is being argued—have an absolute right to our personal data and we ought not to be giving it up (or having it taken from us) without our informed consent. This, of course, is a discussion that requires a much larger platform. At a minimum, however, SXSW is signaling a shift in how we think about our use of the Internet. I’ll venture to say it signals a sea change, one whose implications may be profound.

Among the immediate insights that arise from taking a privacy perspective on data are the following:

  1. Bitcoin is interesting far beyond its effects on financial institutions. The way to think about Bitcoin is as a means of ensuring transactional privacy. What could only be done with cash, can now be done electronically with the same advantages – and, as we have discovered, some of the same risks.

  2. Our health records are ours, and do not belong to a health care system or the government. The realization that our health records tell our personal story and that their ultimate value belongs to us and needs to be managed by us is still a startling fact.

  3. Every online transaction, from simple browsing to Internet (and credit card) purchases, reveals information about us that we have the right to control. Commercial transactions, by definition, are between at least two parties. E-commerce exponentially increases the parties involved in each transaction. Data collected during the initial transaction becomes a commodity in itself, which can be shared and sold many times over. Whether we explicitly agree to this extension of our transactions or not, we are entitled to know which of our data is kept and how it is being used.


These points—and many more like them—could have enormous business and social implications. It is immediately apparent that they relate to one another and foreshadow a changing relationship to the data and metadata that increasingly define who we are. In fact, we can expect to see a new wave of disruptive technologies related to managing our on-line activity. We are already beginning to note distinctions where before there were none: distinctions, for example, between privacy and security, and what it means to own our digital identity. Add in social media (in its multiplicity of forms), and every on-line activity is subject to a major re-thinking.

SXSW has a way of making small ideas very big. This was true of Twitter, and it may be true of a new wave of privacy-related companies. Stay tuned.

Office And Administrative Support Occupations Make Up Nearly 16 Percent Of U.S. Employment, May 2013


Via: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

In May 2013, office and administrative support was the largest occupational group, making up nearly 16 percent of total U.S. employment. The next largest groups were sales and related occupations and food preparation and serving related occupations, which made up about 11 and 9 percent, respectively. Seven of the 10 largest occupations were in one of these three groups.


Click here for interactive version

The smallest occupational groups included legal occupations and life, physical, and social science occupations, each making up less than 1 percent of total employment in May 2013.

The highest-paying occupational groups were management, legal, computer and mathematical, and architecture and engineering occupations. Most detailed occupations in these groups were also high paying. For example, all 19 computer and mathematical occupations had average wages above the U.S. all-occupations mean of $46,440, ranging from $50,450 for computer user support specialists to $109,260 for computer and information research scientists.

The lowest-paying occupational groups were food preparation and serving related; farming, fishing, and forestry; personal care and service; building and grounds cleaning and maintenance; and healthcare support occupations. Annual mean wages for these groups ranged from $21,580 for food preparation and serving related occupations to $28,300 for healthcare support occupations. With few exceptions, the detailed occupations in these groups had below-average wages. For example, occupational therapy assistants and physical therapy assistants were the only healthcare support occupations with mean wages above the U.S. all-occupations mean.

Among 665,850 employed persons in the District of Columbia in May 2013, there were about 3,370 political scientists—accounting for 50.6 out of every 10,000 jobs in the District of Columbia. In all of the United States there were 5,570 political scientists employed out of a total of 132,588,810 employed people—meaning less than 1 (0.42) out of every 10,000 jobs in America were political scientists. The ratio that compares the concentration of employment in a defined area (in this case, the District of Columbia) to that of a larger area (the United States) is referred to by the Bureau of Labor Statistics as the “location quotient.”


Click here for interactive version

The location quotient of political scientists in the District of Columbia is 50.6 divided by 0.42 (the location quotient of political scientists in the United States), which equals about 120.5—indicating there are about 120.5 times as many political scientists per 10,000 total employed people in the District of Columbia as in the United States as a whole.

These data are from the Occupational Employment Statistics program. To learn more, see, “Occupational Employment and Wages — May 2013″ (HTML) (PDF), news release USDL-14-0528.

America’s Biggest Metros Are Growing Much Faster Than Other Cities

April 1, 2014

By: Richard Florida
Via: The Atlantic Cities

Cyclists on a hike and bike trail in Austin, Texas, the large metro with the fastest population growth rate from 2010 to 2013 (Reuters/Julia Robinson).


America’s biggest metros are getting bigger, accounting for a disproportionate share of U.S population growth, according to new population estimates covering the period up to July 2013, released Thursday by the Census Bureau.

While most of the initial coverage of the report has focused on the year-long period from July 2012 through July 2013, I decided to look at the trends over the longer 2010-2013 period, which more or less coincides with the economic recovery. With the help of my Martin Prosperity Institute colleague Charlotta Mellander, I examined the rate of population growth across five key categories of metro size. (See the chart below).


The pattern is striking. Large metros (those with more than a million people) registered the fastest growth by far, 3.2 percent. This explosive growth, in large part due to their capacity to attract immigrants, is considerably better than the 2.4 percent growth rate for the U.S. as a whole. Medium size metros, those with between 500,000 and a million people, grew just a bit faster than the nation as a whole, at 2.5 percent. Metros with between 350,000 and 500,000 people grew at slightly below the national rate, 2.3 percent, while metros with less than 250,000 people grew at just 1.7 percent. And the nation’s smallest geographic units, its 536 micropolitan areas, grew on average just 0.2 percent. More than half of them (286) saw their populations either decline or register no increase whatsoever between 2010 and 2013.

And when we zoom in on which of these specific metros that are gaining and losing population, it’s clear that America’s new geography is increasingly defined by the two pillars of recovery – knowledge and energy – that I initially defined in a piece for the Atlantic this fall.

Of large metros, Austin – a leading knowledge and tech hub – saw the largest percentage increase in population, growing by 9.7 percent between 2010 and 2013. Raleigh, an anchor of the North Carolina Research Triangle, grew 7.4 percent. Houston, San Antonio, Orlando, Denver, and Dallas each grew 6 percent or more.

Some of the fastest growing areas of the country were in the energy belt stretching from Texas up through the Dakotas. Midland and Odessa, Texas; Bismarck and Fargo, North Dakota; and Casper, Wyoming all saw 2010 to 2013 population growth rates of 7 percent or higher. College towns like Auburn, Alabama; Provo, Utah; Durham, North Carolina; and Boulder, Colorado also registered gains at more than twice the national average.

On the flip side, Rustbelt metros continue to see population stagnate or in some cases even decline slightly. Cleveland and Buffalo saw the slowest population growth of large metros, losing small numbers of people, while population virtually stagnated in Detroit, Providence, Pittsburgh, Hartford and Rochester. Pittsburgh and Cleveland saw small population losses in the more recent 2012-13 period.

Once booming Sunbelt metros, where populations exploded alongside suburban sprawl in previous decades, saw their population growth slow substantially from 2010 to 2013. Las Vegas grew by 85 percent in the 1990s, making it America’s fastest growing, and more than 40 percent in the 2000s. But Vegas saw its population growth slow to 3.9 percent between 2010 and 2013, placing it 75th among all metros. Phoenix, which grew by 45 percent in the 1990s (and where population growth topped 4 percent a year for nearly four decades), saw its population growth rate decline to 4.9 percent in 2010-13, leaving it 49th of all metros.

All told, 40 percent of U.S metros (156 of 383) saw their populations grow faster than the national average, while 51 metros grew at twice the national rate, and 13 metros grew at three times the national rate. Seventy-two metros lost population over this period, most of them smaller metros in the Rustbelt and old South.

America continues to see population growth around the twin pillars of its knowledge-energy economy. Many hard hit industrial metros of the Rustbelt continue to stagnate or decline, and the growth of the sprawling, housing-driven metros of the Sunbelt has slowed considerably from the boom years.

Most of all, size clearly seems to matter. America’s biggest metros registered not only the largest absolute increases but also the largest percent gains.

Au Revoir, Entrepreneurs

March 31, 2014

By: Liz Alderman
Via: The New York Times


Guillaume Santacruz, an aspiring French entrepreneur, brushed the rain from his black sweater and skinny jeans and headed down to a cavernous basement inside Campus London, a seven-story hive run by Google in the city’s East End.

It was late on a September morning, and the space was crowded with people hunched over laptops at wooden cafe tables or sprawled on low blue couches, working on plans to create the next Facebook or LinkedIn. The hiss of a milk steamer broke through the low buzz of conversation as a man in a red flannel shirt brewed cappuccino at a food bar.

A year earlier, Mr. Santacruz, who has two degrees in finance, was living in Paris near the Place de la Madeleine, working in a boutique finance firm. He had taken that job after his attempt to start a business in Marseille foundered under a pile of government regulations and a seemingly endless parade of taxes. The episode left him wary of starting any new projects in France. Yet he still hungered to be his own boss.

He decided that he would try again. Just not in his own country.

“A lot of people are like, ‘Why would you ever leave France?’ ” Mr. Santacruz said. “I’ll tell you. France has a lot of problems. There’s a feeling of gloom that seems to be growing deeper. The economy is not going well, and if you want to get ahead or run your own business, the environment is not good.”

In the Campus London basement, Mr. Santacruz, who is 29, squeezed into one of the few remaining seats. Within hours, he was to meet with an entrepreneur he identified only as Knut, to discuss an investment in the company that Mr. Santacruz was trying to build. He called it Zipcube, and was pitching it as a sort of Airbnb for renting office space online.

From 80 to 90 percent of all start-ups fail, “but that’s O.K.,” said Eze Vidra, the head of Google for Entrepreneurs Europe and of Campus London, a free work space in the city’s booming technology hub. In Britain and the United States, “it’s not considered bad if you have failed,” Mr. Vidra said. “You learn from failure in order to maximize success.”

That is the kind of thinking that drew Mr. Santacruz to London. “Things are different in France,” he said. “There is a fear of failure. If you fail, it’s like the ultimate shame. In London, there’s this can-do attitude, and a sense that anything’s possible. If you make an error, you can get up again.”

Mr. Santacruz had a hard time explaining to his parents his decision to leave France. “They think I’m crazy, maybe sick, taking all those risks,” he said. “But I don’t want to wait until I’m 60 to live my life.”

France has been losing talented citizens to other countries for decades, but the current exodus of entrepreneurs and young people is happening at a moment when France can ill afford it. The nation has had low-to-stagnant economic growth for the last five years and a generally climbing unemployment rate — now about 11 percent — and analysts warn that it risks sliding into economic sclerosis.

Some wealthy businesspeople have also been packing their bags. While entrepreneurs fret about the difficulties of getting a business off the ground, those who have succeeded in doing so say that society stigmatizes financial success. The election of President François Hollande, a member of the Socialist Party who once declared, “I don’t like the rich,” did little to contradict that impression.

After denying that there was a problem, Mr. Hollande is suddenly shifting gears. Since the beginning of the year, he has taken to the podium under the gilded eaves of the Élysée Palace several times with significant proposals to make France more alluring for entrepreneurs and business, while seeking to preserve the nation’s model of social protection.

His deputy finance minister for business innovation, Fleur Pellerin, a dynamic 40-year-old credited with schooling Mr. Hollande on the importance of the digital economy, has been busy pushing initiatives to turn Paris into a “tech capital” to rival the world’s most active start-up hubs.

Those initiatives, however, have not yet closed the spigot on the flow of French citizens to other countries. Hand-wringing articles in French newspapers — including a three-page spread in Le Monde, have examined the implications of “les exilés.” This month, the Chamber of Commerce and Industry of Paris, which represents 800,000 businesses, published a report saying that French executives were more worried than ever that “unemployment and moroseness are pushing young people to leave” the country, bleeding France of energetic workers. As the Pew Research Center put it last year, “no European country is becoming more dispirited and disillusioned faster than France.”

Next month, the National Assembly will convene a panel to examine the issue

Today, around 1.6 million of France’s 63 million citizens live outside the country. That is not a huge share, but it is up 60 percent from 2000, according to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Thousands are heading to Hong Kong, Mexico City, New York, Shanghai and other cities. About 50,000 French nationals live in Silicon Valley alone.

But for the most part, they have fled across the English Channel, just a two-hour Eurostar ride from Paris. Around 350,000 French nationals are now rooted in Britain, about the same population as Nice, France’s fifth-largest city. So many French citizens are in London that locals have taken to calling it “Paris on the Thames.”


In the past, most of these people would have gone back to France after some adventure and experience. That may still be true of some in the French diaspora, but nearly 40 percent of French people abroad now say they plan to stay there for at least 10 years, according to the report by the Chamber of Commerce and Industry. Many are quietly saying that they may not return.

Taxes, Frustration, More Taxes

Mr. Santacruz grew up in his parents’ small, tidy home in a suburb of Aix-en-Provence in the south of France. During one of his summer breaks from college in Bordeaux, he visited a cousin who had become rich working in finance and lived in a sprawling residence in the Luberon Valley. When Mr. Santacruz drove up to the entrance, electronic gates opened to a vast garden.

“It was crazy,” he said. “I drove five minutes just to reach the house. That’s when I thought, ‘I want to make it like him.’ ”

“Making it” is almost never easy, but Mr. Santacruz found the French bureaucracy to be an unbridgeable moat around his ambitions. Having received his master’s in finance at the University of Nottingham in England, he returned to France to work with a friend’s father to open dental clinics in Marseille. “But the French administration turned it into a herculean effort,” he said.

A one-month wait for a license turned into three months, then six. They tried simplifying the corporate structure but were stymied by regulatory hurdles. Hiring was delayed, partly because of social taxes that companies pay on salaries. In France, the share of nonwage costs for employers to fund unemployment benefits, education, health care and pensions is more than 33 percent. In Britain, it is around 20 percent.

“Every week, more tax letters would come,” Mr. Santacruz recalled.

The government has since simplified procedures and reduced the social costs for start-ups. But those changes came too late for Mr. Santacruz, whose venture folded before it could get off the ground.

His parents were relieved when he took a job in Paris at the boutique firm NFinance. But he knew that it was a way station. He quickly turned to drawing up blueprints for a new venture.

“I asked myself, ‘Where will I have the bigger opportunity in Europe?’ ” he said. “London was the obvious choice. It’s more dynamic and international, business funding is easier to get, and it’s a better base if you want to expand.”

Diane Segalen, an executive recruiter for many of France’s biggest companies who recently moved most of her practice, Segalen & Associés, to London from Paris, says the competitiveness gap is easy to see just by reading the newspapers. “In Britain, you read about all the deals going on here,” Ms. Segalen said. “In the French papers, you read about taxes, more taxes, economic problems and the state’s involvement in everything.”

French officials have sought to play down such stories. Their takeaway is that migration — which has grown 4 percent a year since 2000 — is hardly new, so the outflow is nothing to lose sleep over. Bernard Emié, France’s ambassador to Britain, even argued that it was something to celebrate.

“The French are expatriating themselves more and more, but this is encouraging,” Mr. Emié told me. “We are not worried about it. They get experience, create wealth, and then they will bring that back to France.”


Mr. Hollande’s government is now trying to re-brand itself as business-friendly, especially for start-ups. Ms. Pellerin recently cut the ribbon on a large-scale technology incubator in Paris. She unveiled initiatives to free up venture capital and encourage digital entrepreneurship, including a “second chance” program intended to remove the cultural stigma attached to failure.

Defeat is seen as so ignominious that France’s central bank alerts lenders to entrepreneurs who have filed for bankruptcy, effectively preventing them from obtaining money for new projects — a practice that Ms. Pellerin would halt.

A pledge that Mr. Hollande made in January included a “responsibility pact” — a promise to relieve businesses of some of the burden to finance France’s welfare state. In February, he announced additional measures to lure investors back to France, unveiling plans to stabilize corporate tax rules, simplify customs procedures for imports and exports and introduce a tax break for foreign start-ups.

These changes were welcomed by business, but the more than 20 French expatriates I interviewed said their country was marked by a deeper antipathy toward the wealthy than could be addressed with a few new policies.

“Generally, if you are self-made man and earn money, you are looked at with suspicion,” said Erick Rinner, a French executive at Milestone Capital Partners, a British-French private equity firm, who has lived in London for 20 years.

Mr. Hollande’s election, and especially his proposal — since ruled unconstitutional — to impose a 75 percent tax on the portion of income above one million euros (about $1.4 million) a year, have only reinforced that perception.

“It is a French cultural characteristic that goes back to almost the revolution and Robespierre, where there’s a deep-rooted feeling that you don’t show that you make money,” Ms. Segalen, the recruiter, said. “There is this sense that ‘liberté, égalité, fraternité’ means that what’s yours should be mine. It’s more like, if someone has something I can’t have, I’d rather deprive this person from having it than trying to work hard to get it myself. That’s a very French state of mind. But it’s a race to the bottom.”

Sharing Space, Waiting Tables

Mr. Santacruz’s efforts to get Zipcube off the ground were full of fits and starts. While London had opportunities, living there was tougher than he had imagined. His apartment in Paris had been spacious, with tasteful modern furniture and French windows overlooking the gold statues atop the Paris Opera. After work, he would go to places like the Hôtel Costes or Le Forum, a bar on the Right Bank, to talk and to sip cocktails.

In London, he had none of that. Without a steady income, he was renting a room in a leaky group house with three roommates. He had also taken a night job as a waiter at Momo, a Moroccan restaurant near Oxford Circus, earning 6.50 pounds (about $10.80) an hour to make ends meet. He would come to Campus London every day to work on Zipcube, but by 4:30 he had to leave to be on time for his shift at Momo, which ended at 2 a.m.

Embarrassed, he hid the restaurant job from his family for two months.

“Sometimes I do ask myself if I’m making the right choice,” he acknowledged. “But if you don’t take risks, there will be no reward.”

Another French entrepreneur I met in the Campus London basement, Emilie Bellet, 30, had a more inspiring story. In less than a year, she had raised a half-million pounds to finance her venture, SeedRecruit, which finds talent for other start-ups. With two partners, she hired four more people.


“In London, every day is a fight,” she said. “But then you get rewarded. I don’t think this would have been possible in France.”

Such convictions are a challenge for officials like Axelle Lemaire, a lawmaker who represents the French population in Britain and Northern Europe in the National Assembly of France.

The growing number of French people settling in London is a sign that France needs to enhance competitiveness, Ms. Lemaire told me one afternoon in her office near Camden Market. But Anglo-Saxon-style capitalism was not the solution if it would compromise France’s social model, which she sees as protecting citizens from the ravages of the free market.

In Britain, “it has been surprising to see the level of deprivation of some of my fellow citizens,” she said. “When things fail here, they can wind up without a penny in their pockets, living on the street. That’s the part of the story you don’t hear.”

At the same time, she said, France’s generous safety net could not continue unchanged without risking further economic malaise. “Socialist politicians all agree on that now,” Ms. Lemaire said.

Back in France, Mr. Santacruz’s parents were still trying to grasp their son’s decision. Having spent her career at the state telecom company, his mother, like many others in her generation, assumed that her children’s main aspiration would also be lifelong job security.

“It’s 35 hours a week, good vacation, a pension and protections,” she told me. “O.K., it’s not very interesting, and I don’t get paid much. But it’s stable. I thought that’s a dream that our young people would want, too.”

His father saw Mr. Santacruz’s move as courageous but felt vexed to have invested in his son’s degrees, only to see him leave his country in a state of disillusionment.

The elder Mr. Santacruz had grown up poor, but eventually got a job as a government customs official.

“France gave me an opportunity to make a life,” he said. “The French Republic formed me, and it also formed Guillaume. When I hear young people disparage the country as they leave, I don’t like that. The children of France should not forget that the state has given them a lot.”

France? Maybe for Retirement

Guillaume Santacruz was grateful for the benefits that his country gave him. But he wanted something else — to innovate. By September, his project was not where he wanted it to be. Yet he maintained that he was better off pursuing it outside France.

He had incorporated Zipcube and had bites of interest from an executive at Booking.com, a website for booking hotel rooms. But Knut, the investor, was not willing to invest after all, and Mr. Santacruz was again seeking financing.

Even if Zipcube fell apart, he told me one chilly weekend at his Kensington flat, where paint was peeling off the walls, “I would not change my mind and head back to France; I see only cons to doing that, no pros.” He was skeptical that the government’s recent offensive to spur France’s entrepreneurial environment would quickly bear fruit.

Several of his French friends in London felt the same way. “I asked them, if things don’t work out, will they go back? Not one of them would,” Mr. Santacruz said. “Maybe for retirement. But not for work — we’d rather go to the United States or Asia before returning.” France seemed to have lost another citizen in the prime of his productive working years.

By February, though, Mr. Santacruz’s foray to England was finally paying off. He had a new programmer and a partner who was handling marketing and sales. Zipcube was selected by Sirius, a British start-up accelerator program, for a grant of £36,000, and he had recently started to reel in some clients. Though he still needed to build the business, he felt he was on the right track.

And while the bar to succeed was high, “I’m confident I’m going to make it,” he declared.

Correction: March 25, 2014
An earlier version of this article referred incorrectly to Milestone Capital Partners. It is a British-French private equity firm, not a British-based investment bank.

A version of this article appears in print on March 23, 2014, on page BU1 of the New York edition with the headline: Au Revoir, Entrepreneurs.

Helping Foreign Investors In The U.S. Satisfy Their Work Force Needs

March 27, 2014

By: Dave Claborn, Director of Development and Community Relations, Ohio State University, Marion (Q1 2014)
Via: Area Development

From German-style apprenticeship programs to mobile technology labs, U.S. communities are providing their work forces with the skills needed for global success.

With more than 22 percent of the world’s gross domestic product concentrated within her shores (UN estimate, 2012), relative economic and political stability, and a manufacturing renaissance under way, the decision to locate a business in the United States is, on the surface, an easy one. The size of the U.S. market, logistics advantages, cheaper energy prices, and a shrinking labor rate differential make a compelling case.

What gives offshore firms pause, however, is the challenge of finding and training a reliable work force. Consider the fall 2013 annual survey of German firms in the U.S. conducted by Roland Berger Strategy Consultants for the German American Chamber of Commerce. “A majority of respondents report difficulty sourcing labor with the skills they require,” says the report. “Access to a sufficiently skilled work force has a noticeable impact on a company’s investment outlook when considering options in the U.S.” . And yet, despite the concern over work force, 98 percent of the same companies expect their business to grow in 2014 — with more than half (58 percent) saying they expect their own business to outpace U.S. macroeconomic growth.

Is There a U.S. Skills Gap?
Mark Tomkins is a vice president specializing in work force issues for the Chicago-based German American Chamber of Commerce of the Midwest. “I don’t know a single manufacturer, off the top of my head, of the German subsidiaries here, that will say, ‘Oh yeah, I have no problem finding work force.’”

A technical trainer at a major Japanese auto plant lamented in a recent e-mail, “Right now, employers are trying to ‘buy’ their skilled people. And it won’t work. There is no loyalty and the person will soon go on to the next high bidder. Education has let manufacturing down,” he wrote.

But has it? The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports four million job openings in the United States at the end of 2013. More than a failure of education could be the dramatic shift in workplace technology over just four decades. In 1970, only one in four jobs required more than a high school education. Today, close to 70 percent require more training. High schools, vocational schools, community colleges, and universities try to ascertain employer needs and build programs around them. The challenge is to guess right. Gearing up new training programs requires significant resources in plant, equipment, and people. If the demand for that skill doesn’t materialize, or materialize in the numbers anticipated, enrollment falls off and schools are left with an unsustainable program.

Then, there’s the middle-class push toward a four-year college degree. With a 63 percent premium in median weekly earnings for those with a bachelor’s degree over a high school diploma, and a 4.5 percent unemployment rate for the college grad versus an 8.3 percent unemployment rate for the high school grad (2012 BLS figures), why wouldn’t a self-respecting middle-class family want to send its progeny off to college?

One reason might be cost. The escalation in college costs is leaving many graduates with heavy debt. If their degree is in a field with few immediate employment prospects, the result is an indebted young person with a nice credential, but few marketable skills.

Innovative Solutions
Nonetheless, America is an innovative place and the push is on to find solutions to fulfill labor force requirements. Ohio’s lead development organization, JobsOhio, is putting together a data-driven approach to filling the skills pipeline. Managing Director Mark Patton calls it a systemic predictive model that involves overlaying federal labor market information with real-time job postings, coupled with a custom-designed survey of companies in various industry clusters. The result is actionable data for vocational schools, high schools, and two-year and four-year colleges on skills needed in a particular region of the state, in a particular time frame, and in a specific quantity.

At the same time, companies are becoming more proactive. IBM has taken the bold step of building its work force through schools it has helped develop. There are eight so-called P-TECH academies in New York and Chicago — with 29 more on the drawing board. Students take a heavy dose of STEM courses over six years, and graduate with an associate’s degree and a promise of a $40,000 job with IBM.

The IBM P-TECH schools are similar to the German-style apprenticeship programs being organized in Michigan, Wisconsin, and several southern states by the German-American Chamber of Commerce. Under the German model, the company partners with an area community college to develop curriculum that coordinates with in-company on-the-job training. The company pays the apprentice and, typically, pays for the student’s education. The apprentice emerges with an associate’s degree and a nationally recognized journeyman’s certificate and, in return, promises to work for the company for at least two years. “The first relationship is with the company,” says the German American Chamber’s Mark Tomkins.

Tomkins’ organization awarded their 2013 MERLIN Award of Excellence in Workforce Development to Bekum America Corporation of Williamston, Michigan, a subsidiary of Bekum Maschinenfabriken GmbH of Berlin, Germany, for their application of a German-style dual-education program. Bekum makes extrusion blow molding machinery requiring the kind of skilled machinists typically in short supply. The company’s four-year program provides 8,000 hours of hands-on training at the Bekum facilities under the direct oversight of experienced “mentors,” combined with 60 credit hours of relevant academic instruction at a partnering community college. Bekum’s success is attracting attention. The Michigan Economic Development Corporation has invited Bekum to assist in structuring a statewide apprenticeship program. Bekum calls their approach “the other four-year degree.”

Honda of America Manufacturing, Inc., facing the demographic challenge of eventually replacing its Ohio-based work force, has developed its own in-house technical training program, but is also putting $75,000 toward development of a mobile technology lab that can be parked outside high schools within its labor-draw area. Students visit the lab for a hands-on experience in modern manufacturing technology, and the hope is that they begin to understand today’s manufacturing environment is quite different from the one their parents or grandparents experienced. The concept of taking the technology to the students “came together through a series of discussions with other businesses and our economic development partners in multiple counties,” says Caroline Ramsey, Honda’s assistant manager for Government and Community Relations. The mobile lab concept is borrowed from similar efforts under way in Michigan and Wisconsin.

Start With State Development Agencies
There is no shortage of training dollars available to companies committing to job creation. “If you have enough jobs,” says the German American Chamber’s Tomkins, “the state will throw money at you.” State development agencies are the place to start to determine the kind of work force development programs available.

There is evidence the states are taking the skills gap seriously. Governor John Kasich of Ohio, for example, in his recent State of the State speech, spent 20 minutes discussing education and work force issues, proposing, among other things, vocational training for 7th graders and online career road maps that could be downloaded on cell phones. “Our kids need direction,” said the Governor, “They need to understand where they are going.”

Since President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, the federal government has offered work force training programs — many aimed at lifting people out of poverty. With more than 50 in existence, the SelectUSA office within the U.S. Department of Commerce is a good place to start in sorting out the options and finding the right fit for a company investing in the United States.

The Great Skills Gap Myth

March 26, 2014

By: Aaron M. Renn
Via: New Geography

One of the great memes out there in trying to diagnose persistently high unemployment and anemic job growth during what is still, I argue, the Great Recession is the so-called “skills gap”. The idea here is that the fact that there are millions of unfilled job openings at the same time millions of people can’t find work can be chalked up to a lack of a skills match between unemployed workers an open positions. To pick one random example out of many, here’s the way US News and World Report put it last year:

“Some 82 percent of manufacturers say they can’t find workers with the right skills. Even with so many people looking for jobs, we’re struggling to attract the next generation of workers. The message about the opportunities in manufacturing doesn’t seem to be reaching parents and counselors who help guide young people’s career ambitions.

We face two major problems – a skills gap and a perception gap. Today’s modern, technology-driven manufacturing is not your grandparents’ manufacturing, yet for many, talk of the sector evokes images from the Industrial Revolution.”


What’s interesting about this is that the “skills gap” continues to have tremendous resonance in public policy discussions I come across although it’s very easy to find many mainstream press articles that challenge it. So I want to take my shot at the problem.

Is there a skill gap? In select cases I’m sure there’s a mismatch in skill, but for the most part I don’t think so. I believe the purported inability of firms to find qualified workers is due largely to three factors: employer behaviors, limited geographic scope, and unemployability.

Employer Behaviors

Let’s be honest, it’s in the best interest of employers to claim there’s a skills gap. The existence of such a gap can be used as leverage to obtain public policy considerations or subsidies. So there’s a self-serving element.

But beyond that, several behaviors of present day employers contribute to their inability to hire.

1. Insufficient pay. If you can’t find qualified workers, that’s a powerful market signal that your salary on offer is too low. Higher wages will not only find you workers, they also send a signal that attracts newcomers into the industry. Richard Longworth covered this in 2012. He explains that companies have refused to adjust their wages due to competitive pressures:

In other words, Davidson said, employers want high-tech skills but are only willing to pay low-tech wages. No wonder no one wants to work for them….So why doesn’t GenMet pay more? In other words, why doesn’t it respond to the law of supply and demand by offering starting wages above the burger-flipping level? Because GenMet is competing in the global economy. It can pay more than Chinese-level wages, but not that much more.

In other words, this company in question doesn’t have a skill gap problem, they have a business model problem. They aren’t profitable if they have to pay market prices for their production inputs (in this case labor). It’s no surprise firms in this position would be seeking help with their “skill gap” problem – it’s a backdoor bailout request.

2. Extremely picky hiring practices enforced by computer screening. If you’ve looked at any job postings lately, you’ll note the laundry list of skills and experience required. The New York Times summed it up as “With Positions to Fill, Employers Wait for Perfection.” Also, companies have chopped HR to the bone in many cases, and heavily rely on computer screening of applicants or offshore resume review. The result of this automated process combined with excessive requirements is that many candidates who actually could do that job can’t even get an interview. What’s more, in some cases the entire idea is not to find a qualified worker to help legally justify bringing in someone from offshore who can be paid less.

3. Unwillingess to invest in training. In line with the above, companies no loner want to spend time and money training people like they used to. I strongly suspect most of those over 50 machinists and such we keep hearing about learned on the job. Why can’t companies simply train people in the skills they need? When I started work at Andersen Consulting in 1992, we weren’t expected to have any specific skill. Instead, they were looking for general aptitude and spent big to train us in what we needed to know. In a sense, outside of some professional services fields, today’s companies, despite their endless talk about talent, don’t actually recruit talent at all. They are recruiting people with specific skills and experience. That’s a very different mindset.

4. Aesthetic hiring. This one I think is specific to select industries, but in some fields if you don’t have the right “look”, you’re going to find it difficult. For example, the NYT Magazine just today has a major piece called “Silicon Valley’s Youth Problem” talking about this very issue. Hip, cool startups see their working environment and culture as critical to success. And that’s true, but those cultures aren’t very inclusive, which is why many Silicon Valley firms are continuously under fire for various forms of discrimination. When they’re trying to be the hot new thing, the last thing an app startup wants is some 55 year old dude with a pocket protector cramping their style, no matter how much of a tech guru he might be.

Limited Geographic Scope

You frequently see the skills gap phrased in terms of specific geographies. For example, a state. Rhode Island has X number of unemployed people and Y number of unfilled jobs. So what do we do to match them up?

This type of thinking is too limited. I attended an hour brainstorming session on the Rhode Island skills gap a while back and not once did anyone suggest anything that crossed the state boundary. One person mentioned these technical high schools in Boston that produce grads with exactly the skills the market is needing. His idea was that Rhode Island needed to create these types of institutions. Not a bad idea, but I was struck that nobody thought about sending these Rhode Island employers who can’t find workers on the one hour drive to Boston to go hire some of those grads directly out of Boston’s high schools. Problem solved. And maybe while bringing some young, fresh blood into the state to boot.

Similarly, no one ever suggested that an unemployed person in Rhode Island might seek work out of state. Realistically, America has often solved unemployment problems through migration. People need to be willing to move to where the job opportunities are. In fact, if you look at the highly educated people who might say telling people to move in order to find work is evil awful, they are actually the most mobile people there are. Clearly the highly skilled see the value in pursuing opportunity through migration. We need to extend the same opportunity to those who are currently stuck in place.

Unemployability

A third problem is that a significant number of adults in this country are simply unemployable. If you’re a high school dropout, a drug user, etc. you are going to find it tough slogging to find work anywhere, regardless of skills required.

Watching the Chicagoland documentary and seeing what kids in these inner city neighborhoods face, a lack of machine tool or coding skills is far from the problem. Similar problems are now hitting rural and working class white communities where the economic tide has receded. Heroin, meth, etc. were things that just didn’t exist in my rural hometown growing up – but they sure do now.

These aren’t skill problems, they are human problems. And the answer isn’t simply job training. These problems are much, most more complex and they are incredibly difficult to solve. They need to be tackled by very different means than a job skills problem.

If you want more info that documents that there is no skills gap, google around and find plenty of economists crunching the numbers to show that’s the case. But I hope this gives you a sense of some of the trends that explain why there can be persistent unemployment with many job openings without recourse to a skills gap to explain it.

Aaron M. Renn is an independent writer on urban affairs and the founder of Telestrian, a data analysis and mapping tool. He writes at The Urbanophile, where this piece originally appeared.