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Chris Thompson on How to Close the Region's Opportunity Gap

Chris Thompson: Closing the region’s opportunity gap

By Chris Thompson 

Published: August 18, 2014 

 

President John F. Kennedy’s aphorism from more than 50 years ago that “a rising tide lifts all boats” is wishful thinking at best in today’s economy. Growing disparity in our communities and our country tell us that a rising tide cannot possibly lift a boat with a large hole in the bottom.

As a report from Standard & Poor’s Rating Services stated earlier this month, economic disparity is now limiting the economy’s ability to grow. If we want to accelerate growth, we need to work in ways that plug the holes in the bottom of our boats, as well as cause the tide to rise. And we need to acknowledge that far too many of our boats have large holes in the bottom. A new report by the Brookings Institution found that in Summit and Portage counties (the Akron metropolitan area) the number of people living in poverty grew nearly 54 percent between 2000 and 2012 to nearly 100,000; and nearly half live in the suburbs.

The S&P and Brookings reports, as well as numerous other studies on the growing challenge caused by economic disparity in our country, should serve as a call to those of us who work in the vast arena called “economic development” to abandon our narrow focus on growth. We should avoid the temptation to only judge success by counting “jobs added” and consider what kinds of jobs are being added, where they’re being added and who has access to those jobs. We need to develop opportunity-rich economic programs that enhance job creation, job preparation and job access.

And public, private and philanthropic funders of economic efforts should insist that those efforts result in growth and opportunity for all of our residents; not just growth for a few.

As I work with civic leaders across Northeast Ohio, including in Akron, I am encouraged by the variety of opportunity-rich economic strategies that are being developed to strengthen our region’s economy. Akron Mayor Don Plusquellic’s initiative to assure more city residents have an opportunity to get the jobs associated with the city’s massive sewer improvement project is one example. Programs that create jobs that are more accessible to our residents, particularly those in distressed neighborhoods, are critical to creating an opportunity-rich economy. The parcel-by-parcel review of land in the city of Akron being done by the Thriving Communities Institute will help identify opportunities for commercial and industrial redevelopment in the city.

The new REACH Center in Summit Lake developed by multiple partners, including the Akron Metropolitan Housing Authority, will bring job preparation services to residents. And Summit County Executive Russ Pry’s public commitment to strengthen the job preparation system is being supported by educators, social service agencies, businesses and economic development organizations.

The Fund for Our Economic Future supports these kinds of efforts in Akron and across Northeast Ohio as part of our Growth & Opportunity initiative. For example, we are working with many Summit stakeholders on a project that will better match job seekers to openings based on their proven skills. We have all heard the lament that companies cannot find job seekers with the skills they need. One reason for this so-called “skills gap” is the most prevalent hiring practices aren’t very good at defining the skills needed for a specific job.

An approach called “skills-based hiring” has proved to be five times more effective at predicting job candidate success than using the more common screen of educational achievement. One outcome of a skills-based hiring initiative in New Mexico was that a significant percentage of job seekers who would have fallen into the “skills gap” under a more traditional hiring approach were actually more than qualified for open jobs and proved to be invaluable employees.

With educators, employers and government officials we are adapting the lessons learned from the New Mexico program to develop a demonstration project in Akron and Summit County that we hope will ultimately help all of our region’s companies hire skilled talent faster and make more jobs accessible to more residents.

These are the types of cross-sector collaborations that will advance a growing, opportunity-rich economy and help lift all of our boats in Northeast Ohio.

Thompson is director of regional engagement for the Fund for Our Economic Future, a philanthropic collaboration formed in 2004 to support economic efforts in Northeast Ohio.