Bill Clinton often says that there's nothing wrong with America that can't be fixed by what's right with America. Even in tough times, the U.S. has enormous assets. Yet, sometimes our brainpower, innovations, business and human capital are underutilized when they remain frozen in silos, disconnected from one another. Regions with lower unemployment and greater growth prospects break the ice by finding the connections between innovation, collaboration, and education -- a flow of resources to create, attract, and grow jobs.
For example, Milwaukee is attracting fame and jobs as one of three global water hubs. Starting just before the financial crisis, business and civic leaders identified water as a theme linking older manufacturers (plumbing supplies, controls), local food entrepreneurs, and scientists at the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee. Subsequent investments grew their strengths. UWM built the nation's first graduate school of Freshwater Sciences. Labs are linked to business incubators and industries of the future. Startup companies see water opportunities; Sweet Water Organics grows perch and tilapia along with salad greens (a process called acquaponics) in an abandoned factory. This is spawning (pun intended) an industry providing healthy snacks to public school kids and science curricula to teachers.
The keys to breaking the ice:
Innovate to build enterprises.
Getting ideas out of the ivory tower and into enterprises requires both excellence in particular fields and collaborations to move innovations quickly. In Albany, the state university's nanoscience expertise has attracted a consortium of semiconductor companies working on collaborative research, bringing facilities and jobs to the area, and encouraging students to start related enterprises.
Perhaps we should measure colleges by not only the jobs their graduates get but also the jobs their graduates create. Rather than leave entrepreneurship to stealth all-nighters by the next Bill Gates, Michael Dell, or Mark Zuckerberg (who dropped out), new programs make it legit. In its first two years alone, University of Miami's LaunchPad, since emulated elsewhere, attracted 1,000 students and resulted in 45 new businesses. In general, according to a University of Michigan study, ventures nurtured in university-based incubators have an average five-year survival rate of 75%, much higher than the recent national average of 47%, and create jobs that tend to remain in the host region.
Connect the chains.
Once enterprises start, they need customers. Becoming a corporate supplier can produce significant growth for companies. About 70% of respondents to a Center for an Urban Future survey who became a supplier to a large company grew jobs by an average of two-and-a-half times by two years after the relationship began. Besides direct purchasing, big companies that invest in promising startups enhance their growth through mentoring and introductions to other customers, including internationally. The big companies can get first dibs on innovative ideas and better U.S. suppliers, helping bring jobs back to the U.S.
But access for small companies is difficult. To facilitate, IBM (a company to which I consult) created Supplier Connection, a Web portal resembling a universal college application. Several dozen big companies, representing over $160 billion in spending, are open to thousands of small and mid-sized businesses with the help of the SBA.
Verizon's Innovation Center in Waltham, Massachusetts, hosts about 80 other companies to develop industry-transformation projects running on 4G LTE networks -- taking technology out of the phone and into cars, bicycles, or refrigerators -- and sometimes links big and small, such as the "connected home" model that involved Hitachi, LG, and a seven-person startup called 4-Home.
Examples like these can be the basis for a national campaign to encourage big companies to help small businesses grow.
Educate for jobs.
An estimated one-third of U.S. unemployment is due to a mismatch between skills and available jobs. This is particularly true for so-called middle skill jobs, that require more than a high school diploma but less than a college degree. Many are well-paying occupations such as software engineering, advanced manufacturing, or medical technicians that support growth industries.
Community colleges, the source of such training, have been weak links, with high dropout rates (in Chicago, under 10% finish the two years of post-secondary education within six years). But when connected to employers and job skills, performance improves. Michigan's No Worker Left Behind program guarantees two years of free tuition toward an associate's degree and works closely with industry; in its first evaluation, 72% of 62,000 participants had found a new job or retained the current one.
In Germany, Austria, and Switzerland, over half of those under 22 pursue an apprenticeship to learn a skilled trade; the U.S. number is under 4%. But in South Carolina, a small employer tax incentive of $1,000 per apprentice is adding to the stock and helping make the state the "Akron of America" as the new tire manufacturing capital.
Let's redefine "vocational education" as an attractive pathway to jobs of the future. A promising model is the new six-year high school in New York City, P-Tech (Pathways in Technology Early College High School), a partnership between the public schools, community college, and IBM, which provides mentors from the beginning and a promise of a job interview upon completing grade 14 with an associate's degree. (New York is adding five more, and Chicago is starting its own with a range of technology companies.)
National service programs are also a way to build links to work. They create direct jobs while teaching useful skills. YouthBuild turns at-risk youth into construction workers and green building experts. City Year (on whose board I serve) provides "near-peer" corps members to work in schools with dropout prone youth; many corps members go on to become teachers. Citizen Schools offers unpaid apprenticeships to middle school students, connecting them with the world of work and raising their aspirations.
Breaking the ice requires leaders in a region to work together to reinforce links across silos and sectors. If one part of the ecosystem dries up, it hurts the rest. To keep America strong and Americans working, opportunity must flow to everyone.