Economics served up
By Frank Ruggiero
Economics was the main course at Appalachian State University’s Walker College of Business’s CEO Executive Luncheon.
The luncheon, which is part of the Harlan Boyles Distinguished CEO Lecture Series, welcomed N.C. Secretary of Commerce Jim Fain as its speaker. Fain was appointed to his position in March 2001, and served the previous two years as the department’s assistant secretary for economic development.
According to his background summary from the Walker College of Business, “…Fain and his team actively recruit and encourage expansion in North Carolina by high-value, technologically competitive industries and companies.”
Fain spoke of this at the April 6 luncheon, first saying, “Change is a given in our lives … constantly accelerating. Nowhere is change more apparent, I think, than in North Carolina.”
Although employment is high in Watauga County, Fain said, “One doesn’t have to travel too far to see the impact of global competitiveness.”
Fain continued, elaborating on the economic climate and referring to the economic circumstances that confronted the state at the beginning and end of the last decade as “the perfect economic storm.”
A manufacturing-led recession, modified trade policies and a post-9/11 economy contributed to this storm, which has disproportionately affected North Carolina and its industrial economy, Fain said.
“This perfect storm certainly has challenged us to change and focus clearly on how we adapt and how we employ our resources to succeed in an open and, frankly, brutally competitive world economy,” he said.
Fain described how the department of commerce and economic development board have been working to provide economic well-being for North Carolina. “We begin by stepping back … and asking what is our vision for North Carolina’s 21st century economy,” he said. “Ours will be a state of well-educated people, trained to do the work of the 21st century and to think critically.”
This involves solving problems, creating new ideas of productivity and reduced costs, creating new products and new models of entrepreneurial enterprises for new jobs, Fain said. Being a state with wise, consistent investment in infrastructure and new technology with a great quality of life “will sustain our reputation in the tradition of this state of innovation,” he said, adding that North Carolina will be a state of knowledgeable workers, where business succeeds because of an innovative workforce.
As such, North Carolina must always be on the cutting edge to maintain an economy that always creates sustainable, new jobs, based on innovation and research with a continuously skilled workforce, Fain continued.
“We couple this vision with a mission statement, which is to improve the economic well-being and quality of life for all North Carolinians,” Fain said. “Obviously, this is a big undertaking. And while we at commerce accept responsibility and … hold ourselves accountable … we know that we will succeed only through collaboration with many, many partners.”
Such partners, he said, include the University of North Carolina system, community colleges, the N.C. Department of Transportation, the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources, the private sector and industry leadership.
“Economic development we know is truly a team sport, and our success in a complex and resource-geared world … depends on exceptional team work,” Fain said, adding this also depends on linking education and worker potential with economic potential.
Part of the task is nurturing the change of the state’s economy from a historically agrarian and labor-intensive base to one of knowledge-driven enterprises and sustainable jobs, as well as promoting a widely-shared prosperity, Fain said.
This will involve the development of a set of long-term strategies. “We at commerce seem to be known as industry hunters,” he said. “Recruiting seems to be what people are most interested in and where the media wants to focus its attention.
“Certainly recruiting and retention activities are vitally important to what we do, but economic development is, in fact, the implementation of a set of long-term strategies, which build the capacity of our state over time to accomplish our mission of sustainable, economic well-being.”
To illustrate his point, Fain laid out his department’s set of strategies: to invest consistently in education and train a globally-competitive workforce; to develop communities prepared for success; to foster the quality of life through cultural, recreational and heritage-based assets; to maintain a modern state infrastructure; to nurture innovation; to bring the innovations to the classroom, laboratories and the marketplace; and to maintain the state’s exceptional and internationally-recognized business climate to attract new companies, support the growth and success of existing businesses, and encourage entrepreneurial start-up activity.
He said the state’s economic development board has developed a comprehensive strategy plan, and that the department of commerce has organized its programs and services to focus on capacity-building strategies.
However, Fain acknowledged the state must ask if these are the right strategies and, importantly, if there is a will to implement these strategies to achieve the vision. “Interestingly, the same strategies, whether explicitly stated or not, have been the basis for our progress and accomplishments throughout our state history,” he said.
As examples, Fain told how North Carolina created the nation’s first public university in the 18th century, pioneered worker training programs for new and expanding industry, built the Research Triangle Park, established the first agency to support the development of biotechnology, underwrote the first state-supported symphony to teach children classical music, approved the state’s largest bond issue for higher education at $3.1 million, invested in an art collection for its museum, and developed the Global TransPark.
“We were bold, we were innovative, and we weren’t complacent,” Fain said, then asking if the state will continue to be bold, innovative and proactive. “It seems to be that we must move quickly and resolutely to deal with … global change.”