Next Generation Economic Development: Thoughts on the Future of our Profession

November 26, 2018

By: Jennifer Vernon and Amy Holloway

The competitive landscape of economic development is changing and so must the role of economic developers. With our nation’s record-low unemployment rates, there is an assumption that prosperity is widespread. Instead, the current economy has put a fine point on what has been suspected for many years: There is a misalignment of workforce skills with business needs coupled with disparities in income and opportunity.

The role of an economic developer is shifting with changes in the competitive landscape.

In Avalanche’s work across the country, we have witnessed more and more economic developers pursuing holistic approaches to improve their communities’ economic competitiveness. This means expanding their organizations’ missions and metrics beyond sheer job attraction to also include efforts that, for example, enhance talent attraction and retention, improve the business climate for innovation and future preparedness, and strengthen leadership collaboration.

This holistic approach – one that we encourage among our own clients – has led communities of all sizes to engage in bolder conversations around the issues facing them. Many of these issues, especially ones like talent alignment, affordability, and economic mobility, are deeply interconnected and have no single solution or single responsible entity. They require partnerships across many sectors. While complex and sometimes difficult, assuming a broader responsibility for economic development will help build a foundation for a more prosperous community for generations to come.

With this in mind, what is an economic developer’s role in this changing landscape? What high-value services can you and your organization provide that will accelerate economic growth? We encourage you to consider the following when planning for the future:

  • The ability to facilitate partnerships is vital to an economic developer’s future. Steps to address competitiveness issues like affordability, infrastructure, and workforce can be more effective when framed through an economic development lens. An economic developer has a unique ability to see how issues interconnect and impact the community’s ability to retain and expand its businesses. Economic developers also have relationships across a wide diversity of organizations in their communities. By identifying issues, then convening meetings with the groups involved in those issues (governments, non-profits, educators, businesses, etc.), an economic developer can spark partnerships between players who otherwise would not be sitting at the same table. And, ideally, those partnerships will lead to action.

As an economic developer, do you have the know-how, stature, and organizational support to convene partnerships needed to tackle your community’s toughest competitiveness challenges?

  • An EDO should rally its resources to be a provider of market intelligence to its community. Data and best practices should drive decisions about a community’s future. However, in our experience, we find that research functions in an EDO are too often under-resourced and reactive. We believe that in the future, the highest performing EDOs will be those that invest in robust research and intelligent systems for translating that research into action.

What can your organization do to have a more sophisticated, proactive approach to gathering data and market intelligence? What can be done to better communicate that knowledge to lead to smarter decisions and to compel action in your community?

  • An economic developer should establish itself as a trusted thought leader in its community. Economic developers are in the unique position to not only market their communities, but also engage in dialogue with companies and business influencers around the globe. What is gained through those interactions – insights on economic disruptors and business needs – is of great value to local stakeholders. Economic developers have an opportunity to serve as an advisor to local organizations and inform the community of impending changes in the marketplace.

As an economic developer, how are you capturing what you learn during your travels to other communities, through what you read, and through your interactions with business leaders around the globe?  How are you conveying those ideas back to your community to raise red flags and inspire change?

Economic cycles and changing global dynamics warrant a re-examination of an economic developer’s future role in a community. From Avalanche’s perspective, this means leveraging an economic developer’s vast relationships and know-how into more connected, informed community development decisions that enhance the community’s competitive position. Economic developers’ roles as lead-generation sales offices will continue to be a part of their activities, but we predict that it will not be the only or even the highest value service that they provide in the future.

Avalanche is here to help communities adapt to change and ensure that economic development initiatives have the greatest positive impact possible in their communities. Whether your community needs help with creating a holistic strategic plan or defining a roadmap for the future of its economic development initiative, we are here for you.