Is anyone in Montgomery County government paying attention to the fact that our local economy has basically flat-lined? As it turns out, at least some of them are.
Earlier this week, the Montgomery County Council was given a detailed presentation from noted regional economist Stephen Fuller, who on the findings of a new report from the Center for Regional Policy Analysis on "Housing the Region’s Future Workforce."
Both the presentation and the report itself should be mandatory viewing and reading for every policymaker, civic activist and business owner in the county, because this discussion goes to the heart of our current competitive position and where we are headed as a community.
Fuller asserts that Montgomery County is in a particularly interesting "change of life" position and we need to rethink and reshape our approach on a range of public policies to reflect some very real changes in our global, national, regional economy. He's right on the money.
The entire DC metropolitan area remains a great place to be, whether you live here, work here or own a business here. Our region has continued to attract investment and job growth, even through this recessionary time. However, Fuller's report raises some real concerns about how Montgomery County ranks competitively within our region, and the extent to which we are participating in the recovery that is taking hold elsewhere. The short answer is, we are not.
The Metropolitan Washington Region grew the fastest among all regions in the United States from 2007 to 2010, with more than 10 percent net job growth even during the height of the recession. This is due in large part to the cushioning effect of the federal government during downward phases of the business cycle, and is not much of a surprise.
However, despite an increase of over 420,000 net new jobs in the region over the past decade (from 2000 to 2010), we have seen a net increase of exactly zero net new jobs in Montgomery County. Just let that sink in for a minute.
With an aging population, it takes some level of positive job growth just to support the current level of county services and the standard of living we enjoy today. Continued zero net job growth leads us in one direction and one direction only: Down.
So what should we do to get our economy back to some level of positive job growth? Fuller points out three key challenges, or constraints, that are preventing us from achieving our full economic potential in these challenging times.
The first is housing. Specifically, we don’t have enough of it, and we are not building enough new units each year to match even the low end of what is needed to house our future workforce. We already import about 40 percent of our workers each day from outside the county, from areas where housing is more available. This share will only increase if we stay on the same course, placing enormous pressure on our already overburdened regional transportation network (the second major constraint we need to do something about).
Clearly, housing our future workforce must become a much higher priority, and not just how much is needed, but what kind of housing units, where they need to be, and how much we will still need to draw upon from elsewhere in the region.
The third constraint is the availability of skilled workers with the right training to perform the jobs that are coming to our region. Employers will locate where they have access to the right kind of workers. That means investing in better education and training for the specific skill sets that will be needed ought to be at the top of the county's priority list as well.
Taking all of this together gives local leaders a coherent, long-term view of what they should be focusing on when they wake up each day. Surprise! It's not "what can I do help some constituency group." We should all be asking ourselves:
- What can we do to encourage job growth and expand the availability of housing in our community?
- What can we do to improve transportation in our region?
- What can we do to help educate and train our workforce?
That is a pretty clear priority list. If we were to stay focused on these items, and truly treat them as priorities, as each master plan comes up for review, as each new budget, policy or regulation is proposed, imagine how much more competitive we would be. Most of our other problems, including our current budget shortfalls, would take care of themselves. It's amazing what a good job can do for an individual, and it’s amazing what attracting good jobs can do for a community.
There's a lot more to this report than I can possibly cover here, but the fact that it has gotten so much attention among our county council members is a great start.