If you are a regular reader of this blog, then you know I’ve written a lot about smart growth. It’s a topic to which I frequently return, one of my favorite subjects for a number of reasons. Understanding and implementing smart growth, I believe, are critical for any community that seeks to compete in the 21st century. As transportation and technological infrastructure has become more advanced, the American workforce has become more transient, which, ironically, means that the quality of our built environments is now more important than ever. There’s another side to this, too.
The American economy has increasingly become knowledge-based; that is where the quality jobs are, and that’s where the competition is.
There was a time, not too long ago, when cities relied on large manufacturing plants to drive their economic prosperity. This was particularly true in a state like Louisiana, where unions are practically non-existent and manufacturers can hire and fire as they please. In many ways, this gave Louisiana a competitive advantage, and for years, we had a solid track record of courting big name manufacturing plants into the Great State and creating quality jobs for vast numbers of people. These plants and the jobs they created became the backbone of many communities. And don’t get me wrong: We should do our best to protect those jobs and ensure they remain in Louisiana.
But there is an obvious problem looming on the horizon. Our workforce isn’t just aging; it is undergoing a fundamental transformation. This means we must completely rethink our traditional approach to economic development, particularly in Louisiana. We must recognize these changes in our workforce and in the very nature of our economy, and we must plan and act accordingly.
I’ve heard it stated another way, and perhaps this more effectively cuts to the point: Instead of spending all of our time, energy, and efforts hoping to land the next big manufacturing plant, we should be more focused on building our own entrepreneurial and knowledge-based capacity right here at home. We should strive to become a center of the knowledge-based economy.
Let’s face it: Louisiana is a poor state with a sizable unskilled, undereducated workforce. Throughout the years and even recently, we have spent hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars incentivizing and, in some cases, propping up manufacturing plants. I’m not making a value judgment on this, because, for decades, the American economy was built on these jobs.
But times, they are a-changin’.
I suppose the counter-argument to all of this would be: While it may be true that our national economy has become knowledge-based, Louisiana’s, for the most part, is not; therefore, we have to focus on meeting our own unique needs.
But that misses a few important points: Again, our manufacturing workforce is aging. In many cases, the average age of a worker in a Louisiana manufacturing plant is pushing sixty, and there simply is not a new crop of young workers waiting to fill those jobs. To be sure, this problem underscores the pressing need for skills-based workforce training, something that is sorely lacking in Louisiana. Still, even if we had a robust system of workforce training and education, shouldn’t we be more focused on training people to compete for sustainable, 21st century jobs? And that is the other problem: As much as it may pain some people to admit it, Louisiana will never be able to effectively compete for quality, 21st century jobs if we continue to build our economy with a 20th century mentality.
It’s easy to see the dilemma we face, but unfortunately, the solutions are not as simple.
As I stated earlier, we should do everything we can to protect our manufacturing jobs, recognizing and respecting the critical role that they play in our local economies. If, for example, Proctor and Gamble were to close its plant in Pineville, it wouldn’t merely be devastating to the 1,000+ people whose livelihoods depend on the plant; it would be a huge body blow to the entire Central Louisiana economy.
But the next time we are faced with the opportunity to spend $60 million to lure a poultry processing plant in Northeast Louisiana, for example, we should seriously consider whether or not such a massive investment of taxpayer dollars will help Louisiana compete in the 21st century. We should consider the opportunity costs: That is, are there other, more effective ways of investing $60 million in order to create jobs? What type of jobs should we be encouraging and incentivizing? And in this particular case, are we actually investing in jobs for Louisianans or are we really just lowering the bottom lines of poultry farmers in Arkansas? Who actually collects the dividends of our investment?
About a month ago, I attended a conference in Shreveport on Intelligent Communities, and one of the speakers, Robert Bell, spoke, at length, about the ways in which cities must compete in the 21st century. He told the story of Moncton, Canada, a place that, in more ways than one, reminded me of my hometown, Alexandria. For decades, Moncton was a manufacturing and distribution hub, a mid-sized city located in the center of New Brunswick. But in the 1980s, Moncton found itself in a crisis. Jobs were drying up. The economy was changing, and Moncton found itself at a crossroads. They could no longer rely on their traditional economic engines. But instead of admitting defeat and instead of continuing to wait and hope that they would be rescued by landing some big, new manufacturing plant, Moncton decided to reinvent themselves as a hub of technology. Well before most American cities had even heard of broadband infrastructure, Moncton was making big investments in broadband. They recognized, earlier than most, that to compete in our new, knowledge-based economy, they would have to invest in the infrastructure of the future. Whereas rail had once served as the network that supported their economy, now, it would be broadband.
Our state and local leaders should recognize that the roll-out of broadband infrastructure is the single most important economic development initiative since the construction of the Interstate highway system. Broadband is the infrastructure of the knowledge-based economy, and without it, we are simply unequipped to compete for the jobs of the 21st century. Suffice it to say, if we had elected to spend $60 million on broadband infrastructure instead of incentives for a poultry processing plant, our investment would have already paid for itself several times over.
For me, in terms of statewide economic development, broadband roll-out should be our number one priority. And we should not allow entrenched telecommunications companies, many of whom act as quasi-monopolies, to dictate our fate or our future. We should repeal existing state laws that make it nearly impossible for municipalities and local governments from offering broadband service as a public utility. These laws were not written or passed with the public good in mind; they were written by telecommunications lobbyists who disingenuously framed the issue as a matter of “fair competition.” If communities in Louisiana want to invest in broadband infrastructure, they shouldn’t have to ask permission from AT&T or Cox Communications or Suddenlink, and frankly, it’s incredible that these companies and their lobbyists even have the audacity to demand such. They have placed a stranglehold on our State’s economic competitiveness. Ideally, broadband roll-out should be an initiative of the Louisiana State government. They have the power, resources, and ability to affect change more than any local government, and they can ensure that infrastructure is built across the entire State, instead of in a piecemeal fashion.
Again, the times, they are a-changin’, and if we refuse to acknowledge this, we do so at our own peril.