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Economic Development with a human voice

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Michael Hecht draws inspiration from the city leaders and planners who designed the all-new Chicago after the Great Fire in 1871. The Chicago fire was one of the great disasters of the age, destroying 3.3 miles of homes and businesses, killing hundreds and making one-third of the populace homeless overnight.

Virtually no one would have predicted the recovery and rebirth that made Chicago a business and political hub by the end of the 19th century. Literally from the ashes, a great city was born. Hecht, President and CEO of Greater New Orleans, Inc., the economic development alliance that is helping to bring about a similar revival in post-Katrina New Orleans, says Chicago after the Great Fire is an apt for the resurgence of New Orleans after its own devastating natural disaster.

GNO's website includes this quote: "The ultimate indication of success for GNO, Inc., will be the presence of a robust and growing middle class in Southeastern Louisiana." Just after Katrina tore through New Orleans and the Gulf region in August 2005, New Orleans was at an economic and emotional low point not seen since the Civil War, at least. Since then, the story has changed dramatically. The Brookings Institute recently named Greater New Orleans the "#1 Growing Metro Area for Employment" in the country, and the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics called New Orleans the #1 Metro for Technology Job Growth in the USA. Post-Katrina New Orleans is a leader in workforce development by numerous measures:

• New Orleans was ranked #1 on the list of "America's Biggest Brain Magnets" for attracting people under 25 with college degrees [Forbes].
• Louisiana has enjoyed 5 straight years of net in-migration [U.S. Census Bureau].

Hecht says "Without Katrina, this resurgence would not have been possible." In an interview with me, Hecht shares his view that economic development is at root a workforce-development issue. "We've spent a great deal of energy attracting a talented workforce to Greater New Orleans, for the benefit of employers already here and those who might look at relocating here," says Hecht. "We've had to think outside the box and partner with businesses at every step." Part of the New Orleans talent-attraction strategy is made evident in the launch of WorkNOLA.com, a careers website that matches job-seekers with opportunities in the region.

"Attracting and growing businesses, and creating better business conditions, those are my two big prongs," says Hecht. Having worked for Mayor Bloomberg in New York after 9/11 and leading the quarter-billion-dollar small-business Katrina recovery program, Hecht is no stranger to rebuilding efforts. He also established a $90M Louisiana revolving loan fund, the first of its kind in the U.S., before taking the reins at GNO Inc. Hecht credits his experience in restaurants for giving him the mojo to tackle turnaround projects like New Orleans' economic revival.

As a workplace commentator I talk to workforce development leaders all the time. Municipal and regional economic development organizations don't typically mix it up in the employer-and-employee matchup moshpit. They tend to leave that activity to the gargantuan career sites and government workforce development programs. Hecht sees things differently. "We started by broadening the frame for our mission as economic developers," he remarks. "Workforce development is one of our strategic priorities, along with the expansion of our airport's international flights, revision of our tax code for businesses, and .... Without qualified workers, how can businesses expand in New Orleans? It's in our best interest to make WorkNOLA.com a hub for talent and employers in our area."

The WorkNOLA.com site is different from traditional career sites in a few obvious ways. Job-seekers post profiles that highlight their skills and backgrounds, store their resumes and cover letters on the site, rate their proficiency in various skills and add their stats to a Workforce Directory that employers can peruse for talent. On the other side of the equation, employers create profiles to promote their opportunities to job-seekers and use WorkNOLA's built-in application system to manage incoming inquiries.

Do WorkNOLA.com and the workforce development focus of Greater New Orleans signal a shift for economic developers, away from on-the-ground deal-making with individual employers and toward a focus on creating a hospitable talent environment for local businesses and local talent? We hope so. I will keep you posted. If New Orleans can do it, why not every city?