Stop poaching and invest in cultivating engaged digitally literate citizens.
America’s communities are in need of investment. The post World War II neoliberal economic model based on paying “Economic Man” enough extra money for a stay-at-home spouse and single family home with enough value to fund public schools is over. Flawed in both theory and execution the model has broken down and fails to account for the digital society we now live in.
The resulting vacuum of economic guidance has caused business leaders, educators, and governments to become overly reliant on recruiting outside talent for workforce development. Nearly every American community is vying to be a top place to “Live, Work, and Play.” To promise a seemingly better opportunity than the city people currently live in. The thing is–the most desirable recruits are already in love with their cities.
Economic development has become a carousel of poaching where communities are constantly in competition to best each other while taxpayers foot the bill and businesses seek the best tax incentives. Last year, 238 cities submitted proposals for Amazon HQ2. Not because they had a chance but because economic development agencies and city governments are addicted to the process.
The problem to be addressed is not recruitment or even retention, but one of cultivation. Deep, long-term cultivation. We must address the lack of education and wellness access that has plagued poor communities and is increasingly destabilizing middle class populations. While we currently support education through tax revenues, the digital economy cannot function in the same manner. Businesses large and small, multinational and local, all depend on the Internet and big data to operate. The only way to increase the value of both is to increase the number of educated citizens who are able to freely engage the digital society.
A century ago, Henry Ford increased worker pay and decreased hours worked; freeing workers to purchase and utilize the vehicles they produced, dramatically changing the social contract of labor. Today, we must similarly address our social contract for education and wellness. Well-educated and healthy people are not only good for society and workforce development; they are the key component to our growing digital economy. Like Ford’s investment in labor, today’s businesses must invest heavily in education to stabilize communities, provide opportunity, and develop talent from within.
Many communities are already establishing public/private partnerships to improve education. However, these programs often focus myopically on STEM and entrepreneurship. Private sector investments must be expanded to robustly include liberal arts and wellness. The humanities must be emphasized equally with engineering and wellness-building programs must be as accessible as trade schools.
As production era jobs are increasingly lost to automation we must support a knowledge economy focused on producing and answering big questions. The long-term solution to production job loss is research job creation.
Investing in people to build stronger, more vibrant communities will develop foundational talent needed to navigate the coming decades. While human and social capital are not measured by GDP, communities who invest in these formerly intangible capital assets will become the models of twenty-first century economics.