ANDERSON — In his bestselling book, The Rise of the Creative Class, Richard Florida, an urban studies theorist and professor at the University of Toronto, imagines two scenarios involving time travel.

In the first, a man from the early 1900s is transported to the 1950s. In the second, a man from the 1950s is transported to today.

In some ways, the physical changes experienced by the man who started in the early 20th century, Florida reasons, would be immensely more profound than those seen by his 1950s counterpart. Greater life expectancies, advances in transportation and health care and a multitude of technological achievements would transform the way he lives his life.

But the second man, he argues, would be affected in a much more profound way. He would soon notice a sea change in cultural norms, including a completely new atmosphere in his workplace – more laid-back dress codes, different schedules, the ability to work whenever, from wherever. His surroundings would look similar, but they would feel different in a baffling way.

Those involved in economic development may recognize that sense of potential mixed with uncertainty.

As cities across the country grapple with the question of attracting and keeping companies that pay competitive wages and, in turn, attract workers who will spend money and pay taxes to allow local economies to thrive, economic development officials are recognizing that their missions must take a more holistic approach. No longer is it enough, they say, to simply bring a new business to town.

“How do we build community around those wins, and how do we build a nucleus within the city that’s going to better the town from those economic wins?” asks Rob Sparks, executive director of the Madison County Corporation for Economic Development.

“Our job has gotten a lot more involved with workforce development, the concepts of how we’re interacting with our schools and if that pipeline of students is moving in the right direction, and if we have that responsiveness with retraining programs as well as continuing to attract companies.”

In Madison County and across Indiana, the business environment has changed dramatically over the last decade.

The state’s unemployment rate has dropped from 10.4% in 2010 to its current level of 3.2%, according to the Indiana Department of Workforce Development, and the growth of its available labor force has outpaced the nation over the same time frame.

With more workers competing for fewer available jobs, experts say the focus becomes making sure those workers are well-qualified to fill roles that increasingly demand different, more technologically oriented skill sets.

“Attracting and retaining a strong 21st century workforce is a challenge and frankly, an opportunity,” says Erin Sweitzer, spokesperson for the Indiana Economic Development Corp. “To do this, it’s important to collaborate with all the key stakeholders and make processes easier for businesses.”

REBUILDING AN ECONOMY

In Anderson, a city that spent parts of two decades recovering from the exodus of General Motors, officials in the early 2000s considered forming a cohesive economic development strategy to be a particularly urgent issue.

“That was at the end of GM winding down their operations in Anderson,” said Kevin Smith, who was elected mayor in 2003 and served two non-consecutive terms. “We were confronted with two major issues that I believe the city had control over, and those two things were needing to create new jobs and just as important was stabilizing our tax base through new investment and new buildings.”

The city had been working with a nonprofit consulting firm to develop contacts, but Smith believed creating a full-time position devoted to selling the city to prospective employers was imperative.

In July 2004 he signed a contract hiring Greg Winkler to head the city’s economic development department. Winkler’s background working with local governments across the country positioned him well to help companies navigate the red tape of local building permits, zoning issues and other necessities.

“Our goal was to take our sales approach on the road and meet potential prospects that he had vetted,” Smith said. “Greg was the one who identified the purpose in our trips.”

Winkler recalls a sense of urgency in his early days on the job.

“The way I’ve described it, from a medical term, you’re approaching a body that’s on life support. So it’s triage,” he said. “We needed to get those jobs, those opportunities, into the community. It was all hands on deck.”

The job announcements, groundbreakings and ribbon cuttings began to come. In a four-year span from 2012 through 2015, a total of 13 new companies located in Anderson, bringing a total of 1,244 new jobs, according to a comprehensive project report provided by the city’s economic development department.

The body, Winkler said, “was no longer on life support.”

Still, he acknowledged, a clean bill of health for the local economy – and being prepared to meet the demands of potential future employers – is a complex, ongoing venture.

To ensure those companies maintain a local presence in the long term, officials say continual investments in economic development are vital. From 2012 through 2019, according to Anderson Mayor Tom Broderick, the city spent about $3.1 million on its economic development efforts and landed nearly $1 billion in overall business investments.

“Having a full-time economic development department is critical in order to have economic development success,” Broderick said. “We work on a daily basis to ensure we have the best opportunities for our community.

“Ultimately, from those investments come property tax revenue, jobs and associated income, and local income tax dollars,” he added. “The return is huge.”

WHAT LIES AHEAD

To keep those dollars flowing into the local economy, officials are turning their attention to programs aimed at developing a labor pool with skill sets to satisfy the evolving desires of companies looking to fill new jobs with appropriately skilled workers.

Initiatives like the Anderson Advanced Manufacturing Program at Purdue Polytechnic Anderson continue to grow and are receiving high marks from business leaders and civic officials alike.

“The next piece is going to be adding programs where there are certifications,” Winkler says. “What we hope we’re able to add with Purdue Polytechnic and Anderson University and Ivy Tech is an industrial maintenance type of certification, which is a much longer, more rigorous process.

“People that come out with a certification for industrial maintenance are people that are making $25 to $30 to $35 an hour – as opposed to the $16 or $17 an hour that we’re seeing being the starting wage now.”

Training – and in some cases, re-training – people for these jobs of the future will inevitably bring with it ancillary issues, some experts say.

For example, according to Marc Slayton, the city’s deputy director of economic development, 40% of the students in AAMP’s six graduating classes so far are single parents for whom child care options are a necessity. Other issues, including reliable transportation and satisfactory nearby housing for employees, are discussed frequently with potential employers.

“There are issues radiating out of that talent question,” says Lee Lewellen, president and CEO of the Indiana Economic Development Association. “Economic development has become much more of a collaborative activity. We’re working more with tourism to promote the positive attributes of our community and asking, how do we leverage those visitors to maybe become residents?

“It’s become a much more diverse and collaborative field, not nearly as cut and dry as it was maybe 20 or 30 years ago.”

For Sparks, that collaboration is a crucial component in figuring out how to respond to evolving technologies that will undoubtedly change job descriptions and feed demand for properly trained, work-ready employees.

“We have a lot of competing technologies – advancements in robotics, advanced manufacturing that requires a lot fewer people – so what will that field look like the next 15, 25 years out?” Sparks asked.

“Are we potentially creating jobs that won’t be here in 10 years because technology is advancing? But then, what’s the new technology that’s around the corner, and can we adapt?”

© 2020 Community Newspaper Holdings, Inc.