GRAND BARGAINS FROM THE GROUND UP

Every year for the past thirty, Macomb County and regional leaders have gathered to hear Dr. Jim Jacobs’ annual economic forecast.  Dr. Jacobs, who not only serves as the President of Macomb Community College but is also recognized as a national expert in community colleges and workforce development, is nothing short of a one-man think tank.  His annual talks are typically an examination of regional and national trends, a celebration of corners turned and problems averted, and an assessment of the road ahead.

The good news is that the forecast for our area in 2015 is “very, very bright” according to Dr. Jacobs.  Inflation is low, the auto industry has recovered, and 2014 job growth was the most in five years.  Locally, our economy exceeded national gains thanks to the success of the Big Three but also to home building and an increasingly diverse workforce, population, and economy.  2014 proved that those who wanted to write the obituary for southeast Michigan were woefully premature.

That said, challenges remain.  Dr. Jacobs postulates that the domestic auto industry may reach its growth limit in late 2015 which, depending on how the sector reacts, will have significant effects locally.  While he didn’t say it explicitly, he alluded in several ways to the challenge before us in settling into post-recession levels of wealth and prosperity.  The “new normal” is indicated by lower median household income, decline in workforce participation, over 160 thousand people who received food assistance in 2014, doubling of recipients of SSI disability, the financial issues of inner ring suburbs.

Not dwelling on the challenges, Dr. Jacobs also highlighted the local institutions that continue to help Macomb County and its residents prepare and adapt, not the least of which is Macomb Community College.  With its regional partnerships and innovative programs like the Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship, MCC is an economic engine that helps drive the county.  Other institutions like the OU Incubator are helping cultivate new businesses including in the burgeoning cyber security field.

My favorite part of his address came towards the end as he was discussing “wild cards,” or things that could have a significant effect on whether the year turns out to be bullish or bearish.  Some, like political stalemate in DC or international instability, are beyond our direct control.  However, one thing he highlighted seemed to be a MLK-like gauntlet laid down as a challenge to us all.  In contrast to the “grand bargain” that pooled resources and helped Detroit emerge from bankruptcy, Dr. Jacobs linked the prospect of our future regional success to our ability to “organize grand bargains from the ground up.”  I took this as a challenge for leaders – business, educational, political, and especially everyday leaders – to put aside political agendas to bolster shared priorities for the common good.  If we want to realize success in this new and challenging world, we have to work together in ways we have never done before.  That was my key takeaway from the speech, and a resolution for 2015.