While the U.S. economy struggles with stagnant GDP, sluggish personal income and tanking consumer confidence, Lawrence’s economy has its own technical issues to deal with.
Like making its workforce more technical.
A crowd of about 150 people at the Lawrence Chamber of Commerce’s 2011 Economic Forecast Breakfast on Tuesday was told that area educators need to do a bit more to help boost the local economy in the future.
“If we are going to have an economy based on high-tech businesses, we have to make sure we have a workforce that is compatible,” said Charles Krider, a Kansas University business professor and presenter at the conference. “We’re not quite there yet.”
Ron Guerin, operations manager for Lawrence-based Computerized Assessments & Learning, said his company is an example of a firm that is struggling to find high-tech employees. The company develops computerized solutions for scoring a variety of standardized tests.
The 35-employee company recently expanded into the space formerly occupied by the Lawrence Athletic Club on East 23rd Street, and is looking for six computer engineers with a very specific set of skills. Guerin said such engineers are plentiful in India, and his company is seriously contemplating outsourcing the unfilled engineering position to an Indian firm.
“I’m afraid we’re very close to the point of creating a half-dozen software development jobs, but not for the local economy but rather for the Indian economy,” said Guerin, who said the company has been recruiting for the positions for about two years.
Beth Johnson, vice president of economic development with the Lawrence Chamber of Commerce, said Lawrence’s highly educated workforce is a strength for the community. But she said local leaders are working to train future employees on the specific skills needed by Lawrence employees. Johnson said the school district is working with Johnson County Community College to develop specific “career pathways” for high school students to explore. Johnson said opportunities exist for Kansas University and other education providers to partner with the Kansas Department of Commerce to create custom-tailored training programs for specific employers.
Also at the conference, Michael Davern, a vice president of Chicago-based Nuveen Investments, said despite the negative tone of the national media, he was cautiously optimistic that the economy would not fall back into recession.
“If you go through all this news, you’ll be so depressed that you’ll be looking for your therapist,” Davern said. “The only thing I haven’t mentioned is that the Mayan calendar ends in 2012.”
Davern said data on personal income, personal spending, business investment and weekly jobless claims are all stronger than they were during the recession. Data derived from surveys — such as the Consumer Confidence Index — have been negative, Davern said. He thinks consumers are feeling more negative then they actually are acting.
“There are a lot of negatives out there in the press, but the data does not show we’re in a recession,” Davern said. “But we are at a really important time. We can take these numbers and move forward or we can fade back.”
The event was part of the chamber’s revamped Lawrence Business Expo, which features booths from about 80 area companies at the Lawrence Holiday Inn.