CHICAGO – Bemoaning the loss of industry to overseas competitors, filling the skilled trade gap, the mammoth task of revitalizing the nation’s infrastructure – amid the Great Recession it’s been easy to view dimly the prospect for prosperity in America. But in Chicago this week, Steve Forbes and his media group brought together a number of hand-picked optimists who argue the U.S. is headed toward a new era of industrial and innovative might. The challenge is in figuring how to leverage emerging opportunities to ensure a brighter future.
Called the Forbes Reinventing America Summit, leaders from the public and private sector came to the Windy City to share their visions of a resurgent America and their recommendations as to how to make the American Dream attainable for generations to come.
“We’ve got an enormous opportunity,” Forbes told the invitation-only crowd. “One thing Chicago, and indeed the country, has is a can-do attitude.”
Jan Rivkin, Professor of Business Administration at the Harvard Business School, believes the nation’s emergence from the recession puts the country in a decisive moment where it will either leverage lessons from the economic crisis to reignite industry or simply be content that the worst is behind us.
Rivkin focused on infrastructure, suggesting that the current mix of investment opportunities and projects begging to be undertaken could spark a national revitalization. But, he said, “at a time of the lowest interest rates we’ll ever see we have unemployed construction workers.”
Education underpinned much of the summit. Specifically, most agreed that continued focus on providing science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) curriculum is vital to the health and prosperity of the nation’s cities. IBM’s Pathways in Technology Early College High Schools (P-TECH) was cited on multiple occasions, including several times by Chicago mayor Rahm Emmanuel.
STEM and vocational education are necessary to prepare the nation’s youth for careers, not just jobs, said Cheryl Hyman, Chancellor of City Colleges of Chicago. Hyman and others spoke of the need for cities to engage with technology companies to tailor curriculum in order to meet the hiring needs of the industry. She also said she believes that part of the reason so many jobs in manufacturing, logistics and distribution continue to go unfilled is because American students – and parents – don’t understand that these industries have fundamentally changed. No longer, Hyman said, are we talking about assembly line jobs. Instead these jobs often involve operating high-tech machinery and typically pay well above the average salary. Cities and their education institutions need to work hard to erase the stigma that everyone needs to go to college. The skilled trades gap, Hyman and others remarked, exists largely because Americans are unaware of the opportunities those fields actually offer.
Beyond education, Emmanuel said cities “have to invest in our core strengths.” To that point he cited numerous projects in and around Chicago, including an effort to rehab or replace every bus, train and station in the city. Emmanuel also said the city is undertaking a massive water infrastructure upgrade by replacing every piece of water and sewer infrastructure that is over 100 years old and is adding the equivalent of an entire airport to O’Hare International.
Bill Ford of the Ford Motor Company said a return to American industrial dominance will require a national dialogue about what needs to be done on the infrastructure front.
“We have to figure out as a country where we want to go,” Ford said, to avoiding repeated cycles of tearing out existing infrastructure without a national consensus on what to replace it with. Ford was particularly keen on connected vehicle technology and driverless cars. “This is not all science fiction,” he said. “This is stuff we’re working on now and some of it is coming very soon.”
The nascent energy boom underway in the U.S. was also championed by the largely pro-business crowd. Shale oil drilling was called “the greatest single factor that has been the biggest economic uplift for the United States” by Mark Papa of the oil and gas company EOG Resources, which currently has a major role in the North Dakota Bakken oil field. Papa estimated that increased production in North Dakota means the U.S. could be independent of OPEC by 2020 and that the U.S. energy industry is on pace to add 3.6 million new jobs.
North Dakota was held up as a region that, like Emmanuel said, is playing to its core strengths, while Milwaukee, Wis., was singled out for its efforts to rebrand itself as home to the nation’s premiere cluster of water technology innovation.
Other panelists, such as U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Thomas Vilsack, encouraged cities to invest in new industries like distributed bioprocessing and, per U.S. Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL) in federal research programs, citing the 150-1 payback that he said has been realized for every federal dollar spent on the Human Genome Project.
Durbin and others also regularly clamored for improved and more numerous public-private partnerships. “When we team up, public sector and private sector, we can really get things done,” the Senator said.
His comments echoed Emmanuel, who said “One of the nuttiest things going on is this battle between the public and private sector. We’re partners. The model we should have is creating a partnership for the best results for the people we serve.”
By the time the summit concluded Friday, the clear takeaway was that reinvestment in America’s cities, education and infrastructure is the clear path forward as the effects of the Great Recession begin to fall away. While certainly not a novel concept, the call to action appeared to resonate with the assembled industrialists, entrepreneurs and politicos.
In closing the event, Forbes managing editor Dan Bigman put a final, finer point on the issue.
“Cities are not disposable. We have to find something to do with them and the people who live in them,” he said.
(By Chad Vander Veen)