Posted: August 09, 2019 by Kelly Murphy-Redd
Should Economic Developers Be Social Workers, Employment Agencies
Or Even Social Activists?

A couple of years ago I attended an economic development conference. I was sitting at a table with several economic developers during a leadership discussion. I will admit, I was feeling a little intimidated at the level of conversation. I thought, perhaps, I did not have much to offer to the discussion.

However, I listened very carefully and started to realize I did have something to say and it was probably not what they wanted to hear.

The words parity and disparity were used extensively. Equality, fairness and diversity. They were discussing what communities needed to do to combat disparity. Honestly, it was pretty pretentious.

I spoke up and said that I thought some economic developers were elitists. They asked what I meant by that. They didn’t think I was talking about them of course.

I said that some economic developers thought they were the smartest people in the room, knew what everyone else ought to be doing and told everyone what they should be doing. Perhaps, some economic developers should listen more and furthermore, stop trying to be social workers. We proceeded to have an interesting discussion about the role of economic developers.

I also attended another international retail conference where a female speaker postulated that if women in the world were made more equal, most of the world’s problems would be solved. “Gender parity.” I paraphrase and simplify of course, but that was the general idea. I postulate that the world’s problems are many and diverse and there is not one solution.

I attended an economic development class where the female instructor lamented the dominance of white males. She also talked about a community that received money to develop a vibrant downtown area that included job opportunities, entertainment and cultural opportunities. She also mentioned a nearby community that wanted to know why they didn’t get money. All communities are different. Does that neighboring community have adequate infrastructure, workforce, buildings, transportation, etc.? I don’t know, but labeling groups, singling them out and wanting to do things for them is not economic development. Neither is labeling groups winners and losers or deciding that a certain group is a problem for another group.

Obviously, everyone should be treated well, to have opportunity, to be treated equally. But I believe the economic developer’s role should be to help create opportunity for everyone and not be for or against specific groups.

Our economic development council works with educators, employment agencies, healthcare institutions, utilities, elected officials, businesses, chambers of commerce, the SBA, and our military to create a business-friendly climate, the most and best opportunities for everyone in the community.

Churches, law enforcement and charitable organizations, along with the above mentioned groups, also work within their own organizations, to create a better, healthy, safe community. The media should also be a part of the communication effort between all of these groups and the individual.
By creating the most opportunity and then doing everything possible to make sure people know about it is a great service. Economic Development Organizations do not have the time, manpower or money to branch out to social work or social activism. They cannot afford mission creep.

So, let’s say a company that needs welders is attracted to a community by the economic development organization.

The EDC has worked with elected officials, state and local agencies, municipalities to help create a business-friendly environment. For example: streamline permitting and working to curb over regulation.
  • The economic development organization has helped this company with location, connections, incentives, critical information about suppliers, workforce, infrastructure, and more.
  • The company has talked to area businesses to understand the community.
  • They have learned about the area’s healthcare and available education.
  • The educational institution offers welding certifications.
  • This is communicated through the institution, the employment service agency, the media and the company itself.
  • Scholarships and financial aid are available.
  • Potential employees get the certifications and are employed by the new company.
  • Those welders who have been out of work are notified through an employment service agency that jobs are available.
Everyone has an opportunity. The jobs created by the company and their investment in the community helps everyone. The company locates in the community because the necessary factors like infrastructure, transportation, etc. are present. All the entities in a community come together, work together to grow a vibrant place to live and work. Each has their areas of expertise and focus.

On the last day of the conference I mentioned first, I ran into one of the people from my table. In the conversation she mentioned to me that she thought some economic developers were elitists. Hmmm.