Book reinforces effort to transform the region

November 8th, 2013

News Coverage:

Book reinforces effort to transform the region

Posted: Friday, November 8, 2013 12:00 am | Updated: 7:49 am, Fri Nov 8, 2013.

By Barry Rochford

Mike Packnett likes to jot down ideas in books as he’s reading them. But his worn hardcover edition of “The Coming Jobs War” by Jim Clifton offers visual evidence of just how much it made him think.

“This is more than normal,” he said as he opened the book during an interview in October, showing an inside cover filled with notes and questions. “Almost every page has something underlined for me.”

The president and CEO of Parkview Health, who along with former Steel Dynamics Inc. president and CEO Keith Busse spearheaded the Northeast Indiana Regional Partnership’s Vision 2020 initiative to advance the region, first heard about the book from a fundraising consultant.

“I took it, immediately read it on a plane, came back and was fired up,” he said.

And Packnett wasn’t alone. When John Sampson, president and CEO of the regional partnership, began reading Clifton’s book for the first time, it was difficult for him to find a convenient place to stop.

“To hear him affirming what we thought were compelling priorities for the region, it was just like, ‘I can’t put this down. I’ve got to figure out what’s next,’” Sampson said.

Clifton’s book likely has become the most requisite reading material in the region among individuals working to shape its future. Packnett, who sits on the Regional Opportunities Council that guides Vision 2020, alone has handed out more than 200 copies of the book. And there are similar tales of others giving away the book or passing it along to a friend or co-worker with the imperative: “You have to read this.”

That’s largely because Clifton’s book, which was published in 2011 and argues that if America is going to maintain its standing in the world it must fight not just for jobs, but “good” jobs, largely echoes what began the year before when Vision 2020 was launched. Business and community leaders like Packnett and Busse threw their collective weight behind the effort to transform the region based on five “pillars” that would support and provide focus for their work: 21st-century talent, business climate, entrepreneurship, infrastructure and quality of life.

Vision 2020 also resulted in the Big Goal Collaborative that underpins everything being done to advance northeast Indiana. The Big Goal is, well, big: increase the number of people ages 25 to 64 in the region who have a two- or four-year degree or professional credential to 60 percent by 2025. Achieving that, according to Big Goal backers, will result in an enviable work force with the talents and skills employers desire.

To offer a comparison, in 2009, less than 35 percent of northeast Indiana workers had a degree or credential.

“Our mission is really to develop, attract and retain talent because if that’s not there, no one is going to be looking to either expand their business or to come in from outside,” Packnett said.

“These (companies) can go anywhere in the world, and so what’s going to make northeast Indiana attractive to come to? If the talent isn’t there, then nothing else matters.”

The Big Goal and Vision 2020 depend on the region’s business and community leaders, elected officials and local economic-development organizations to work together collaboratively — but not for some self-congratulatory, feel-good reason. For 30 years, northeast Indiana has lost ground in average per-capita income compared to the nation as a whole. Packnett noted the nation’s average per-capita income is $20 an hour; in northeast Indiana, it’s $16 an hour.

And another challenge facing the region: It has yet to gain back all the jobs lost during the Great Recession.

“It’s not the coming jobs war. It’s here,” Packnett said.

“But the real thing is how do we create the environment in northeast Indiana that allows us to compete for good jobs on a global (scale)? Because it’s a global war for good jobs.”

Said Sampson: “We’re having a healthy discussion in our region that just creating jobs in themselves is not the object here. The real objective here is about creating wealth and prosperity for families, residents, people trying to go to school and earn a living and have vacations and do the things we’ve become accustomed to.

“We’re saying for us as a region, to grow the economy is not about creating jobs, it’s about creating high-quality jobs where people have benefits and have full-time application of work, and what that means to your psyche, your ego, your family, food on the table — those have real meaning.”

Beyond the per-capita income and jobs numbers, Vision 2020 and the Big Goal are about changing the conversation — about building momentum and creating optimism, about establishing northeast Indiana as a place where creativity flourishes and entrepreneurial activity sprouts.

“It’s just been apparent to me that if we can create an environment where our companies — the existing companies — are willing to testify to why this is a great place to do business, then other businesses would want to be in that environment,” Sampson said.

It won’t all happen tomorrow, next year or maybe even five years from now, but Sampson and Packnett believe that without Vision 2020 and the Big Goal, northeast Indiana would remain at a standstill while the world passes it by.

There is a symbol for how Packnett feels about northeast Indiana’s future. It’s called an interrobang, a combination of an exclamation point and a question mark.

“That’s really how I feel on the inside,” he said. “I’m excited for our future, but I’m really questioning what are the things that we have to do to get there?”