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December 21, 2018 10:00am

Inaction has its consequences for the city of Louisville

NOTE: This editorial was adapted from a speech given on December 14th, 2018 at “Tomorrow’s Talent: Workforce & Education Summit” & published in “Louisville Business First” on December 18th, 2018.

As 2018 draws to a close, I want to focus on our region’s efforts to compete economically with our peer cities, and issue a call to action. Here is a quote from a comprehensive report on our region’s economic development strategy:

“If Louisville is to reshape its economy over the next decade by developing strong technology-oriented manufacturing and producer services sectors, it must upgrade its labor force by improving the skills of existing workers.”

Sound familiar? That quote is from the highly regarded Boyle Report, published in 1996. 22 years ago!

And that statement about our workforce rings as true today as back then when Bill Clinton was president and the internet had only 10 million users.

While the world and its economy have fundamentally changed, Louisville’s economy has not. Many of the issues outlined in the Boyle Report are the exact same challenges we continue to experience today.

We, as a community, have not yet put those obstacles behind us, while other cities we compete with for jobs and talent have.

The consequences of not acting sufficiently over the last two decades couldn’t be clearer. Just look at two cities that were smaller and less prosperous than Louisville not so long ago: Nashville, Tenn., and Austin, Texas. Both have passed us by.

Recently, Nashville was awarded the consolation prize in Amazon’s HQ2 search: 5,000 high-wage jobs right in their downtown. In Austin, Apple just announced it would build a billion dollar tech campus there employing up to 15,000.

In 1996, Boyle called for major investments in workforce development to create more skilled blue-collar workers and highly trained technical experts graduating from our high schools, colleges and universities. The thinking was that investments in skills would drive deliberate economic development and business attraction in emerging segments of the economy, like tech.

But today, we are still not there in terms of our educational attainment and student outcomes. We are not yet attracting jobs of the future fast enough to keep pace with our competitor cities.

The report also called for expanding our air service domestically and internationally and for creating several technology clusters. Both critical assets we still lack today.

Over time, economies evolve and cities with high skill workforces are rewarded. Louisville’s GDP grew by just 1.5 percent in 2017. Austin grew by 6.9 percent. Nashville grew 4.1 percent.

Even Indianapolis and Cincinnati each grew 2.5 percent. GDP growth is only one metric where we trail the pack.

From 2010 through 2017 compared to 15 peer cities, Louisville ranks seventh in job growth, eighth in labor force growth, 11th in population growth, 12th in wage growth and 14th in college degree growth.

These numbers are not an anomaly. They are a continuation of a larger trend for this region.

We need to recognize that the economy and workforce of our past is not the economy and workforce of our future. Manufacturing, which is a big cluster here, is doing great as an industry but manufacturing employment has been on the decline since the 1970s.

I can point to many good initiatives with Jefferson County Public Schools, Jefferson Community and Technical College, University of Louisville, Sullivan University, KentuckianaWorks and other workforce-skills organizations, and within companies themselves. But for us to beat the competition, which already has a lead on us, we must act and invest even more boldly, at a faster pace, and with a heightened sense of urgency.

I want to close with a final quote from that same report to offer some inspiration. Boyle said: “The economic vision expressed by Louisville’s leaders might seem beyond the community’s reach, but it can be achieved if business, government and education leaders really believe the result is worth the strain … Being average is not bad. The question is, ‘Does the Louisville region dare to dream of being special?'”

I say yes, Ross Boyle! Yes, we dream to be something special, and we are willing to make it happen.

Let’s make darn sure that 22 years from now, someone is not again quoting unresolved challenges from the Boyle Report and issuing this same call to action.