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Turning Analysis into Action to Grow Northeast Indiana’s Economy

March 2nd, 2021

In February, John Sampson announced his plan to step down as president and CEO of the Northeast Indiana Regional Partnership as of March 31, 2021. 

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"This town don’t like change much" 

“Hoosiers” is on my top ten list of all-time favorite movies. This was true before we lived in Indiana let alone prior to our two native-born grandchildren and finally adopting the title, “Hoosier by choice.”

Pam and I have now lived in Indiana longer than any of the many great communities from our travels, including the time we spent growing up in Washington state. With accumulated credit for a couple of decades of Hoosier citizenship, I want to redeem several points to speak candidly in this CEO Perspective.

Only through full citizenship in Indiana did I come to appreciate the authenticity of the movie for hard work, the gritty competitive nature that bleeds to a self-reliant determination against-all-odds, and of course, an addictive affection for basketball embedded in youth sports before most kids can hardly walk.

There is even more to the script of Hoosiers devoted to the characteristics and values that make us collectively unique. I have always thought that Hoosier’s hospitality was much more than just a slogan. I am equally convinced that the deep commitment to Hoosier values has been tarnished by an impression of others that we are closed-minded; holding a stubborn resistance to change and a low tolerance for “risky” ventures. This resistance to change comes through loud and clear in the plot of Hoosiers. I can hardly believe that was by accident.

As I recently announced, I’ll be stepping down as president and CEO of the Regional Partnership as of March 31. While this will lead to a leadership change for the Partnership, it does not change the critical mission of the organization or vision for the region. Northeast Indiana has a challenging path ahead, and we have discussed the “complacency gap” that threatens our Vision 2030 goals at length in all of our leadership forums. If we allow resistance to change and our risk tolerance to dominate our view of the future, we are likely to be left behind in a way that threatens our economic relevance on a national and global scale.

Yes, our challenge is serious, and this challenge is illuminated in the Central Indiana Corporate Partnership’s (CICP) GPS study findings accumulated over the last 18 months.

Thankfully, the CICP, in concert with Brookings and American Enterprise Institute, did not leave us alone with these dire findings. In many respects, they openly identify that Indiana holds many assets and redeeming qualities to our advantage. In addition to the findings, tangible recommendations are offered for thoughtful consideration and debate, but ultimately, we must act.

We must turn analysis into action if we intend to claim prominence in our recovery from the tragic pandemic and the accompanying recession and its mixed bag of business booms and busts.

Here is the opening paragraph from the CICP that tees up the study:

“Indiana, like other states, is facing a critical moment as it contemplates its post-pandemic future after a year of historic tumult, quarantines, and recession. While it has managed, by some measures, one of the stronger recoveries from the initial COVID-19 crisis among states, Indiana must now address a set of “preexisting conditions,” including multiyear productivity slippages in its advanced-industry sector, recurrent struggles with industry and labor market shifts, and a shortage of quality employment.” (Read the full study here)

While we may take solace in not being the only ones, the critical question remains, “what will we do with what we know?”

Certainly, we will debate and question the findings and the interpretation of the data, but at the end of the day, there is sound reason to explore the insights provided by this comprehensive analysis. Will we seek to understand how these findings might affect the future for all Hoosiers? Our only hope for the future is to deal with the hard reality before us. While we might not like what we see, it is hard to ignore that the results of the past decades and recoveries from recessions are insufficient to increase prosperity and create hope for the residents of Northeast Indiana.

Will we choose to act to change our trajectory or choose the safety and comfort of our past practices? Will we rise above or will we stay the course? It is up to us, as regional leaders of Northeast Indiana, to decide.

The executive summary of the full report provides an ample introduction with the highlights listed below.

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GPS Study Findings

Indiana possesses significant strengths as it moves beyond the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic, though disparities persist.

  • Indiana’s pre-pandemic employment and pay trends raise questions about the likely shape of its post-pandemic recovery.
  • ‘Preexisting conditions’ affecting at least three key success factors underlie the state’s trends and present challenges to its resilience. 
    • Advanced-industry sector competitiveness—reflected in productivity trends—has been slipping
    • Advanced industries support quality employment—albeit at different concentrations—in all Indiana counties and in every region
    • The state has struggled to adapt to recent economic shifts, which have created multiple “reallocation” challenges for industries and workers
    • Indiana’s economy has been providing too few good jobs
    • Insufficient digital investment is limiting advanced-industry sector competitiveness and the state’s broader productivity
    • Thinner job supplies and various skill- and job-matching issues could slow worker transitions and wider reallocation
    • Job quality has suffered amid difficult economic transitions

Recommendations

Indiana should build resilience into a recovery that promotes true renewal by doing the following:

  1. Accelerate digital adoption
  2. Promote favorable job creation and worker transitions
  3. Do more to support workers who are not in good jobs

As we have learned well in Northeast Indiana, when we stand together on tough issues, we all stand to gain. I am not suggesting we can do all of this by our own will and resources. We must do what we can do. Much can be done by employers and community leaders to understand the recommendations and to effect changes specifically in recommendations 1 and 2. Recommendation 3 will be an area requiring support from the state.

Admittedly, new state policies will be necessary to maximize our progress statewide, but that should not slow us down from doing what we can do to start as soon as possible to turn this new understanding into new strategies and tactics for our concentration of advanced industries.

As I mentioned at the outset, the only question for us now as business, community and education leaders in Northeast Indiana is, “what will we do with what we know now?” We are all familiar with our insufficient trajectory towards the Vision 2030 goals. At risk in our current course are thousands of high-quality jobs and a doubling of the region’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) output.

It is so easy for us to say, as we have said, “good enough is no longer good enough.” Will we be true to that maxim or is it nothing more than a slogan?

In one of my favorite scenes of Hoosiers, Gene Hackman gets himself ejected on purpose from a game and leaves the reins of the team to his recovering alcoholic assistant coach, Dennis Hopper, playing “Shooter.” Needless to say, the moment is rich with drama as Shooter steps up and delivers beyond his own fears and expectations.

That is us. So many great leaders with that authentic, Hoosier gritty determination brought us to this moment of opportunity in the recovery from the pandemic.

Let us now honor our past and treasure the values that have made us great. Past leaders would never constrain our future with outdated practices and expectations. We have demonstrated repeatedly we are capable of far more when we realize that we have the power to lead and take action to change the course of our future.

Now is the time to turn analysis into action to secure our place in a state of renewal. Onward!