Northeast Indiana’s Role in the War for Good Jobs and Talent

By: John Sampson on June 4th, 2018

Vision 2030 – Are We in This Together?

I had a brief encounter with a community leader last month whom I had not seen for a while. In our conversation, a polite and very well-intended question surfaced, “Are you still working on your Road to One Million thing?”

Why yes, I am. With this exchange, it hit home that I may be carrying a misconception of this “Road to One Million thing.”

I thought it was our Road to One Million.

Perhaps with the urgency and success of the state’s Regional Cities Initiative, we lost sight of our ultimate objective. Way back in 2016, we were thrilled to celebrate as Northeast Indiana was named one of the three winning Regional Cities Initiative grant winners. With gratitude, we accepted the State’s commitment of the matching $42 million grant.

Then, with equal enthusiasm, cities across our region went to work to assemble matching funds and the project plans necessary to compete for Northeast Indiana Regional Development Authority grants to launch numerous exciting quality of place projects. Fast forward into early 2018, following many Northeast Indiana RDA board meetings and rigorous project meetings, essentially all of the $42 million has been committed and the work is underway.

Is that it? Time to take a breather; sit back and put our feet up and watch our goals come to life. Right? Hardly. 

On one hand, the truth is that our efforts have just begun. On the other hand, we have enjoyed some success, growing regional pride and getting traction in national media with many outside Northeast Indiana sensing the palpable momentum. We continue to build confidence to confront and win difficult challenges. The long-sought “swagger” of being from Fort Wayne and Northeast Indiana has returned to our gait. Others are talking with curiosity about “what’s going on up there” or openly asking, “How did you do that?”

Last year, the Vision 2020 process was recast to focus on specific goals for the year 2030.

By the year 2030, Northeast Indiana must:

  • Increase PCPI annually against the national average
  • Increase the population of Northeast Indiana to 1 million residents
  • Increase postsecondary education attainment to more than 60 percent

Many residents of the region are likely completely unaware of these specific goals, why they have been articulated or why anyone should care about their existence. On the contrary, I am sure there are others who are likely aware of the goals, participated in conversation about them and concluded that they are someone else’s concern.    

As I said, I thought this was our Road to One Million plan.

By now, I am also sure that we may have forgotten why we committed to the goals of Vision 2030 and the supporting Road to One Million economic analysis. Make no mistake though, the capable team at the Regional Partnership, a few passionate community leaders and the dedicated economic development professionals across our region alone, could never restore economic health or vibrancy to these cities and counties struggling for a competitive position for good jobs in a highly competitive global marketplace. 

Statistics remind us what we’re up against and why this mission is important to the economic growth of the region. Northeast Indiana’s cost of living is at 95 percent of the national average, and our per capita personal income is only at 83 percent of the national rate. On average, wages in the region are some of the lowest in the state and well below many of our comparison benchmark communities and neighboring states.

Again, I thought we were in this together. Are we really committed or just interested, as if we will escape the impact to our personal livelihoods?

To be clear, it’s not my intention to be negative. There isn’t any other resident in these 11 counties more bullish on our region’s prospects to win in the global war for talent and good jobs. We can do this. We must do this for the next generation. But, we cannot win if it is someone else’s problem. 

As Jim Clifton said in “The Coming Jobs War," this is the war “for all the marbles.”

It will take all of us, aligned, committed, questioning one another and holding each other accountable to row in rhythm to the beat of these three powerful goals.

A not-so-subtle reminder is in order. Based on the benchmark communities of the Regional Cities Initiative and our economic analysis of the Road to One Million plan, here is what’s at stake.

The objective is to achieve and sustain a 1.5 to 2 percent annual growth rate in our population. Currently, we are at about half that rate or 0.7 percent annually.

Projected Vision 2030 Outcomes

  • Population grows to 1 million by 2031, more than 30 years faster than the current trajectory
  • Labor force expands by 120,000 by 2030 reversing the current decline due to retirements
  • Regional GDP doubles to $60 billion over the next decade
  • Wages increase across the region by $10B

These outcomes are at risk if we do not work together to accomplish our Vision 2030 goals. Make no mistake, this is not easy. Without question, there are all sorts of direct and indirect impacts related to infrastructure, housing, education and society. Yes, there are many risks and challenges tied with accelerating our growth rate. Just ask any one of the elected officials of the region what happens when their jurisdiction grows 20 percent over ten years.

You also might ask those same elected officials what happens in their communities when their populations are in absolute decline. You will find that there is a certainty of risk on our current path. Based on the current rates, we are facing 100,000 new jobs in the next decade to be filled due to retirements and the growth of existing firms.

Where will that talent come from? Certain for today is that employers will get the work done even if it means meeting their demands by sending it to other communities and places on the globe while we stand by and watch our workforce decline. Have we grown comfortable with the certainty of our current path?

If other communities have achieved this growth, why not Fort Wayne and the communities of our region? Are they any smarter, more determined, more willing to work harder or better as a unified community? I say, no. 

Sure, anyone can challenge the accuracy of these projections. To what end? Will anyone dispute the tremendous and positive impacts to our residents, communities, educational institutions, not-for-profits, foundations and others by a resurgence in population, educational attainment, entrepreneurship and growth in incomes?

Even if we should fall short by some finite measure, what will we have learned about our capabilities, and what will we have accomplished for the good of our cities, counties and region?

There’s no doubt the Regional Partnership is all-in, committed, capable and working on that Road to One Million thing. How about you and your organization? Are we in this together?