Published: January 19, 2014
Mark Lautman believes the key to winning the economic development game is to not do things the old way.
Lautman is the author of the 2011 book "When the Boomers Bail: A Community Economic Survival Guide." The premise behind the book is that communities need to actively replace their workforce as it ages.
He is a founding director of the Community Economics Lab, a private nonprofit think tank that seeks to create new approaches to economic development. He also runs a consulting business, Lautman Economic Architecture.
Question: How did you become interested in economic development?
Answer: In college after switching from economics to architecture, I remember wondering why there wasn't more emphasis on economics in the city planning courses I was taking. It seemed to me that the economic base of a community or region had more to do with its form, function and character as the many other factors that city planners focus on.
Just before graduation, I had a conversation with a visiting professor about how some day planners and community leaders might use design thinking in their efforts to improve their economies. If you are endeavoring to design and build a physical landscape that would improve the lives of future residents, why wouldn't you take a crack at designing the economic base that would be needed to amortize it? A decade later, I found myself in the business of designing and building new economies.
Q: What communities have you studied that have had the most economic development success? What strategy worked for them?
A: So many fundamentals of the economic development game have changed since 2008 that you have to be careful benchmarking best practices from one place to another.
On a regional scale, what the Columbus 2020 group is doing in central Ohio is really impressive. Dubuque and Cedar Rapids, Iowa, Oklahoma City and Tacoma, Wash., are doing great work at the metro level, and Vermillion, S.D., Spencer, Iowa, and Newton County, Ga., are doing groundbreaking work at the small-town level.
The communities best positioned for this new economic development game seem to be those in which the community's leaders have accepted the fact that they are in a new game, one in which you must invest more to achieve less.
The accelerating rate of change means any strategic advantage you might currently enjoy is probably temporary. Your current and future economic-base employers are going to experience increasingly shorter life cycles resulting in diminishing returns for many of our legacy job creation approaches.
This doesn't mean you should cut investment in traditional job creation approaches. To the contrary, most places will need to double down on these programs despite knowing they aren't going to work as well as they used to.
This new era of "transient advantage" means communities that figure out how to innovate new job creation program approaches are going to have a huge leg up.
Another important area for economic development program innovation is figuring out ways to raise the metabolic rate of entrepreneurship. There is interesting work going on in this area, but it is still a long way from being a coherent program approach that you can implement by the numbers.
The most difficult issue will be figuring out how to truly integrate local workforce and community development strategies with the community's economic development efforts.
The bottom line is you can't play this new game with the old mindset. To succeed now, you have to be willing to do three counterintuitive and expensive things at once:
1. Put more money, not less, into programs that don't work as well as they used to.
2. Invest in innovating new program approaches knowing some of them will fail.
3. Get your economic development, workforce development and community development institutions working in strategic harmony.
Q: What are the most important steps toward attracting and retaining young professionals?
A: First, you need to determine how many and what kind of professionals you need to attract and retain. You have to decide what mix of economic activity you want. This will be the basis for anticipating what kind of jobs are going to be in demand. This is no easy task, and it will end up being a wild guess, but without it, you have no practical way to spot the future gaps early enough to create a practical mission for your education and workforce development institutions.
After that, you will want to begin developing profiles for the workers you will need to attract and acquiring the data, analytics and insights needed to inform local community development and policy decisions. Understanding what community factors are driving away the talent you need will ultimately help you prioritize your community development agenda.
Q: What are some of the biggest mistakes you've seen communities make in their quest to replace their aging workforce?
A: The first and biggest mistake communities make is failing to acknowledge that they have a problem. They fail to recognize it as the economic death threat that it is. Even then, too many communities assume there is nothing they can really do about it.
More communities are driving off the talent they need now, but the science surrounding the issue has been slow to develop, so it is difficult to get beyond anecdotal assessments problem. In the near term, trying to figure out who's coming, leaving, staying - and why - is one of the most exciting areas of economic development now.
Q: What's your best advice for Colorado Springs?
A: Colorado Springs is leading the nation right now on diagnosing the impact of a rapidly aging population on a community and its future economic development.
While still far from being integrated into the community's economic and workforce development thinking, the work being done by your Innovations in Aging group (a local collaborative that seeks to address age-related issues) puts Colorado Springs ahead of most other places in the country.
Next steps should be:
1. Design the specific economy the city wants to have in 10 years.
2. Forecast age-related workforce gaps and address them.
3. Develop a formal talent development, attraction and retention program - staffed by an economic demographer and a human resources professional who can become a local brain trust to help local institutions and employers refine their strategies.