It was heartening to see such a strong turnout at Thursday night’s “Community Forum on Job Growth” at Lawrence High School. Having people who care about an issue enough to come out and discuss it is the first step in finding a solution.
A snapshot of local jobs and wages provided by the city’s economic development coordinator certainly gave the group something to talk about. Economic downturns have been tough on employment throughout the nation, but Lawrence seems to be faring worse than most of the rest of the state. For the first time since 2001, private sector employment growth in Douglas County has dropped below the state average. In 2008, the county lost more jobs than any other county in the state.
Kansas University and other government employers obviously provide many public jobs in the county, but state budget cuts have made that source of employment less certain for Lawrence and Douglas County.
Much of the territory covered at Thursday’s meeting has been covered in Lawrence before, but it’s possible that the significant downturn in private sector employment in the last year or two will lend a sense of urgency to the discussion.
For instance, figures for 1993 and 2000 show the county with slightly more jobs than workers; in 2007 there were almost 10,000 more workers than there were jobs. Even so, Lawrence Chamber of Commerce officials say there are job openings they are unable to fill. That suggests that either we aren’t attracting the right kinds of jobs or that we aren’t providing the right kind of training for the jobs that we have.
As it always does, Lawrence’s “quality of life,” was listed as one of its greatest strengths. That’s great, but how do we translate that into jobs, especially jobs that go beyond low-wage service categories? It’s wonderful that retirees and others want to live in Lawrence, but increasing our dependence on our residential tax base is a losing proposition. Figures presented Thursday night also showed that recent job losses correspond to a loss of tax revenue, as well as declining construction, home sales and home values.
There is good news in the fact that 120 people from many different sectors of the community came together to discuss this situation. They talked about ideas and exchanged business cards. Just by being there, they showed a willingness to roll up their sleeves and attack a problem that, without some special attention, will only get worse.
Harnessing that concern and turning it into action is the next step. Chamber President Tom Kern said a report on the forum would be e-mailed to participants in about a week and that organizers hope to use the information they gathered to formulate a job creation proposal for elected officials to consider.
Among the “limits” participants identified Thursday were a lack of competitive spirit on economic development, a lack of vision and a lack of leadership. We hope some leaders will rise out of Thursday’s group and provide the vision and enthusiasm the city needs to get back its competitive spirit and become a stronger player in the economic development game.