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Business leaders visit Capitol Hill

July 24, 2012

Last week I had a chance to meet with members of our congressional delegation on Capitol Hill in Washington. I was accompanied by 34 other business and community leaders from across southwestern Michigan and northern Indiana. This is the first of three installments related to that trip.

For the trip, our Chamber teamed up with the Cornerstone Chamber in Michigan, the Elkhart Chamber and the Goshen Chamber for our annual D.C. Fly-In. Together, these four organizations represent the business interests of more than 3,400 member businesses in our region, a powerful voice for our local area.

Our group couldn’t help but feel we were a part of history, walking the historic halls at a time when critical decisions will certainly shape the future of our country.

While in D.C., we visited with Reps. Marlin Stutzman, Fred Upton and Joe Donnelly; as well as Sens. Richard Lugar and Dan Coats.

We also had an opportunity to see many of those other representatives you see regularly on the news, including Rep. Nancy Pelosi and Sen. Orrin Hatch.

This is the sixth year in a row our local delegation has descended upon our nation’s capital. Our visit this year was again timely — coming just days after the Supreme Court had issued an important ruling on health care and just days before Congress was to adjourn for the August recess.

Despite a busy schedule, each of the legislators was able to squeeze us in for some important dialogue about issues impacting businesses in our area. Most of the issues cross political boundaries and affect our entire region.

Among some of the critical issues on the minds of area business leaders is the outlook for the economy and jobs. Many decisions coming out of Washington affect businesses’ ability to grow and expand, so key conversations about the regulatory environment and what new things are on the horizon were on the top of business leaders’ minds.

The fiscal cliff and the budget crisis caused the most concern, and were top of mind of our elected leaders. Partisan gridlock, the impending election, and generally the lack of political courage amongst Congress left all of us, even our elected leaders, concerned about what may happen come the beginning of 2013.

In addition, health care reform and immigration were key discussion items, especially given the recent Supreme Court rulings. We also inquired about a broad range of other issues, ranging from the Internet sales tax to the recent transportation bill, as we recognize how important sound infrastructure is to the development of our communities.

One of the real highlights of our trip was a chance to reminisce with Lugar in the historic Senate Foreign Relations Conference room about his time of service. Indiana has been fortunate to have the service of a true statesman like the senator, and his knowledge and experience will be missed.

Though our trip was mostly about business, we did have the opportunity to visit the National Air and Space Museum. While there, we were treated to an excellent tour by John Adams High School graduate and former South Bend resident Sid Polk. Among the highlights of that tour was the Enola Gay and the space shuttle Discovery.

Later this week, I’ll dive deeper into some of the specific issues, and why we all should be paying close attention and be concerned about what may or may not happen in the coming months.

Jeff Rea is president and CEO of the Chamber of Commerce of St. Joseph County.

Learn area’s econ plan

June 20, 2012

Jobs and economic development are on everyone’s mind. As our area continues to recover from a few difficult years, we want to know what the future looks like and what efforts are being made to grow our local economy.

Michiana residents will have a unique opportunity this week to go into great detail on the topic as Mayor Pete Buttigieg hosts an economic summit at the Century Center this Thursday. The daylong event is open to the public, but a reservation is required.

Attendees will have an opportunity to dive deeper into subjects like our regional economic development approach, what we are doing in St. Joseph County, and a new direction for South Bend’s Community and Economic Development Department.

Participants will also learn more about efforts to start and grow business in our area, about how we build the skilled workforce necessary to meet the demands of tomorrow’s jobs, about how we sell and market our key community assets, and about the elevator pitch that will help sell the community locally and around the world.

Finally, we’ll see a glimpse of an IBM analysis of our area and remarks from a keynote speaker who is an expert on community and economic development issues from across the country.

At last check, more than 175 people had registered to attend.

So can it all work? Can we create the right environment for economic growth? Can our area become the preferred area for entrepreneurs? For people seeking to grow their business? For young professionals? For visitors? For families? For retirees?

We certainly have our challenges, like many communities do, but I have no reason to believe we can’t build on the many efforts and assets in our area and make the Michiana area that model area that other parts of the country aspire to be.

The business leaders I have an opportunity to work for and with are convinced it can be. They have made heavy investments in our area, taken great risks, bet on future prosperity for our area and region.

The education leaders we have worked with are convinced it can be too. They have worked hard to develop programs and opportunities to prepare our students for future success.

The neighborhood and community leaders we have worked with are also convinced. They have worked tirelessly to address a wide variety of issues from vacant houses to crime, from youth violence to helping those in need.

The government leaders we have worked with too are on the same page. They have worked hard in their communities to assign priorities to critical needs and to prepare their communities for long term growth and prosperity.

Those leaders all have one thing in common; they recognize we have problems and they know we need to fix them. They all believe in better.

Our recovery and future success now will be in large part a result of the ability of each of these groups and others to work together and advance a common vision for our community and direction.

Equally important is communication and trust amongst those groups. Financial resources are scarce and people’s time is limited. We must work to not duplicate our efforts. We can’t work in silos.

The summit presents a good opportunity to bring a lot of key players to the table in South Bend. The conversation will be informative. I believe people will be optimistic about the efforts being put in place to grow our community. More important though will be the action that follows the summit.

Jeff Rea is president and CEO of the Chamber of Commerce of St. Joseph County

It’s a big, big world out there

April 17, 2012

I had a chance last week to catch Mayor Pete Buttigieg’s first State of the City address as South Bend mayor.

The mayor touched on a lot of important topics, but I was intrigued by his remarks specifically related to the global economy and regional economic development.

The mayor named five Chinese cities — Changchun, Zibo, Taiyuan, Shijiazhuang, Ningbo — and he indicated they had three things in common. First, the mayor (as well as most people in the audience) had never heard of those cities before he sat down to research his speech; second, each city has more than 3 million people; and third, none of the five cities is even in the top 20 Chinese cities by population.

I decided to study it further. China is about the same size as the United States in land area. China has more than 1.3 billion people, about four times more people than the United States. (India also has about four times as many people as the United States.) China has 46 cities with more than 2 million people and 160 cities with populations of more than 1 million. By contrast, the U.S. has only nine such cities with more than 1 million.

The state of Indiana would be the ninth largest city in China if it was a city, at 6,516,922 people. Indianapolis wouldn’t rank in the top 50 in terms of population with a population of 829,718. If you used the Indianapolis Metropolitan Statistical Area, it still doesn’t crack the top 50.

The South Bend-Mishawaka MSA is the 150th largest MSA in the United States, at 318,000. St. Joseph County has about 266,000 people and is the fourth largest county in the state. South Bend is the fourth largest city in the state.

We are competing in a pretty big world against some really big communities. So how do we set ourselves apart, or make sure we appear on people’s radar screens? Numbers alone won’t do it, as you can see above.

But with the ease of transportation and the advent of technology, you really can do your business from anywhere in the world. Why not here?

The mayor’s point was that like it or not, we are in the same economy as each of those cities and MSAs. To compete in this global economy, a community like South Bend or Mishawaka or Osceola doesn’t have a chance unless it can join forces with those around it.

People get nervous when they hear thoughts like that, wondering about maintaining the individual identity of their local communities. I think that is important to the people who live locally, but to the rest of the world it doesn’t matter as much. Can we work together in the spirit of reaching the rest of the world, while still maintaining our individual identity? I hope so.

I am encouraged by the amount of collaboration going on between the economic development organizations in the region, as well as with their local government unit partners. My hope is our residents also recognize the strength we have as a region and tell the rest of the world about the great strengths we have in our region.

Jeff Rea is president and CEO of the Chamber of Commerce of St. Joseph County

Factories search for good workers

March 20, 2012

Local company has an immediate need for skilled labor in the Michiana area. Selected applicant will join a dynamic team of co-workers at a company that is growing and prospering. Company offers competitive pay, benefits, and a great work environment. Candidate must be available for a variety of shifts.

Ideal employee must meet the following minimum requirements: candidate must come to work every day … on time. An individual with the ability to make smart decisions preferred. Selected candidate must be willing to follow directions.

Ideal candidate must be able to concentrate on his/her work and care about the quality of their work, as well as take the lead and work hard.

Ability to read, write and calculate well a plus. Desired applicant must also be able to recognize problems and find solutions, finish a job when supposed to without sacrificing quality and be honest and dependable.

Candidate must be able to communicate well and get along with other people … especially customers.

In addition, candidate must dress properly and practice good grooming, be cooperative and have a positive attitude. High school diploma/GED required.

Perhaps a little bit different of a job ad than you’ve seen in the past. However, it’s what employers are telling me they need most. And they are telling me they are having a hard time finding applicants that demonstrate many of those traits listed above. One told me Friday he typically has to interview close to 100 to get two quality applicants. And once he finds two, retaining those two becomes a challenge.

Nationwide, an estimated 600,000 manufacturing jobs are going unfilled. Though I don’t have a specific local number, I know it is significant as it is a regular message heard from local employers.

Manufacturers expect the shortage to worsen in the next three to five years as older workers retire.

Though the job focus is often on finding skilled machinists, welders, operators and engineers, many employers prefer finding employees with the basic skills listed above that ought to be a prerequisite for any job.

Training programs are beneficial and often focus on a specific skill or trade. It’s a little harder to teach attitude, work ethic and pride in one’s work. Can we teach teamwork and problem solving?

I think we sit on the cusp of an exciting opportunity, if we can connect the dots between the needs of the employers and the skills of the worker seeking opportunity. A skilled work force is an essential part of our job attraction and job growth opportunities. We don’t want people deciding to locate their company or expand their business somewhere else because they could not find the workers they needed here.

In Indiana today, 291,000 people are unemployed, including more than 15,000 in the South Bend MSA. Imagine if we could plug some of those unemployed into some of these available positions, a win-win for our local economy.

Some workers have been diligent in their efforts to re-tool and retrain; others have not. It’s going to be up to each of them, as well as parents, teachers and employers to instill many of those soft skills essential to make it in today’s work force.

Jeff Rea is president and CEO of the Chamber of Commerce of St. Joseph County

Preparing our future workers

March 6, 2012

High school students often get a bad rap. We sometimes perceive them as lacking motivation and focus and being too worried about what they wear, who wins the big game and what others think of them. I had a very different experience after encountering some local students.

At a recent event, I met several members of the Penn High School Robotics Team and their adult mentor. I came away from that meeting impressed with the very complicated work they have undertaken, but also excited to know such a program exists here in our local community. I think their school is preparing them well for the future.

We’ve all known for some time of Penn’s success in their athletic endeavors, but they also excel off the field and in the classroom in their academic endeavors. Penn has been a high performer in many academic competitions and regularly has been a model of academic performance and student achievement. The superintendent tells me they simply want to do the best at everything they do.

In our increasingly competitive world, students no longer have the luxury of waiting to think about what career path to consider. At Penn, students have a head start on some exciting career opportunities that lie ahead.

The robotics team explained that their current competition is really like a cross between the excitement of sports mixed with the rigors of science and technology. Their goal is to design and build a robot as a team and to have it perform well in competition.

Their robot actually plays basketball, and undertakes a variety of tasks including picking the ball up off the floor and launching it at the basket with a high degree of accuracy. It is March Madness in a form different than what we are all used to. It really is something to see.

The robot project is a rigorous project. First, funds need to be raised to finance the project, and then the team comes together to build and program the robots to perform prescribed tasks in preparation for their competition. This real-world engineering project helps the team take practical applications learned in the classroom and implement those in real life. Math, science and technology are important ingredients for their success.

Volunteer professional mentors lend their time and talents to guide each team. Students learn from teachers, professional engineers and volunteers. They also learn to interact with the community and local businesses as they build awareness and raise necessary funds for the development of their project. During the process they become more aware of engineering and how to use it to solve problems, filling the gap between education and application.

These young people exhibited a great confidence, were solid communicators, and showed real leadership as they described how their project has moved forward. I believe they will be the science and technology leaders of tomorrow. I was excited to hear that in addition to the robot project, they would be leading six different camps for young people in our area for the seventh consecutive year.

Perhaps no item is more important to our future ability to attract jobs in our region than a skilled work force. Those communities with the right assemblage of talent and skills to meet the needs of the jobs of tomorrow will position themselves best to thrive.

I’m confident that with what I have experienced from Penn, as well as the other many quality programs in our area, we’ll stack up well against anyone.

Jeff Rea is president and CEO of the Chamber of Commerce of St. Joseph County

Election Season Already in Gear

February 14, 2012

The upcoming federal elections are already starting to garner a lot of attention. Candidates have declared their intentions, ballots are being finalized, and pretty soon campaigning will be in full swing.

Are you surprised like I am to see political commercials already interrupting your favorite programs?

Do you plan to pay close attention, or are you already planning to tune these messages out? Do those commercials make you more, or less, interested?

The last presidential election in 2008 saw only about a 57 percent voter turnout, while only 38 percent cast their vote in the 2010 midterm elections. Those elections have netted results that most Americans aren’t excited about, a presidential approval rating of 48 percent and a congressional approval rating of 13 percent.

We all should be very interested in this election cycle. Every day the federal government makes decisions that affect all of us. Take for example the federal budget. Monday we got our first glimpse of the proposed fiscal year 2013 budget, which begins in October of this year. That budget forecasts a $1.33 trillion deficit for the fiscal year ending September 30, 2012. Though the deficit is likely to shrink a little this year, this is the fourth year in a row it has topped the trillion mark.

I have a hard time wrapping my arms around how much 1 trillion is, so I did some research. If you were measuring a trillion by people, you would have a state 153,000 times larger than Indiana, a country 3,200 times larger than the U.S., or a planet with a population 143 times bigger than the current world population. Using time, 1 trillion seconds is about 32,000 years, longer than recorded history.

A trillion is a lot, and everyone talks about the need to reduce that deficit. Will it happen this year?

Candidates will tell you that government must live within its means and it must cut wasteful spending.

Voters will remind those candidates that they’ve been doing just that in their homes and in their businesses, and they can’t understand why the government doesn’t get it. Will we see progress?

Challenging economic times make the federal government’s incentive to overspend even greater. No one wants to risk throwing the economy back into recession. Some think the more the government spends, the more it stimulates the economy. Politicians think they get elected for saving jobs and they lose elections for allowing unemployment to continue or raising taxes.

Will election year politics prevent Democrats and Republicans from renewing efforts for a broader budget agreement? It might, but we may also be partly to blame.

We often remind our elected officials to make those important cuts, but ask that they make sure those cuts don’t affect Medicare or Medicaid, Social Security, defense or transportation spending, unemployment benefits, education reforms, research and development, or any of the 2,199 programs for federal domestic assistance.

So where do we want them to cut? Somewhere, as long as it is someone else’s program, not “my” program. It sure isn’t easy.

This election, you’ll have more access to information on the candidates than ever before. It has never been easier to register to vote (www.indianavoters.com), and voting will take only a few minutes of your time in May and in November. We all should pay close attention and it is up to all of us to make sure our voice is heard by casting our vote.

Jeff Rea is president and CEO of the Chamber of Commerce of St. Joseph County

New leaders renew hopes in new year

January 3, 2012

I had a chance Sunday to attend the swearing-in ceremonies of Mayor Dave Wood in Mishawaka and Mayor Pete Buttigieg in South Bend. Standing room only crowds greeted both mayors while residents, business leaders, city staffers and elected officials looked on with optimism as the mayors and city councils took their oaths of office.

High expectations await our mayors. Both seemed ready to answer those expectations and chart a course that will position their communities for future success and prosperity. That has residents in both communities excited about the future and encouraged as both roll up their sleeves and get to work.

Our mayors heard strong messages from their constituents during the campaigns related to economic development and the need for new capital investment and job opportunities here in our community. A sluggish economy and slow job growth have people concerned about our future. Our mayors heard that message, and both have identified economic growth as an item that will be at the top of their agendas.

Today, there are more than 30,000 incorporated towns and cities in the United States. Add to that the number of cities and towns around the world and we get a sense of who our competition is for those new jobs and investment. Most of those communities also have strong desires for growth, capital investment and new job opportunities. It is essential that we position our local communities to be competitive with those other communities.

So what can we expect of our new leaders as it relates to economic development? Our expectations must be realistic and within reach. Though both mayors are very knowledgeable and intelligent, neither can be called upon to be “Superman.”

There is no magic formula and no catalog where you can order a new industrial facility, a new corporate headquarters or a handful of entrepreneurs. Change won’t happen overnight, but rather over a longer period of time. Hard work, a clear vision, and a dedicated team will help us get off to a good start.

Gov. Mitch Daniels and others often remind us that it is not government that creates jobs, but it is government that creates the conditions that make those jobs more or less likely to occur. Site selectors remind us that that the cost of doing business and the ease of doing business in a community are often key factors in a company’s decision-making process. Our mayors will have an opportunity to influence each of these factors.

We will rely on our mayors to be our chief salespeople for our communities. That will include responsibilities typically undertaken by a salesperson, such as ensuring customer satisfaction and managing the quality of product and service delivery.

Our mayors both embrace this role, but recognize that they also need a talented sales team under them, and that includes each and every one of us. Imagine a sales force of 260,000 people in our community instead of two — that could be powerful.

Our mayors gave us a call to action in their remarks, asking that we each embrace the important role we all play, take personal responsibility, volunteer where we can, work together for the best interest of our collective community. Are you ready to roll up your sleeves and get to work?

We are not always going to agree with our mayor, and some of the decisions our mayor or city makes. However, we must remember that it is OK to disagree, but we must not allow our disagreements to harden into anger or to hold our community back, especially at this critical time.

I think Mayor Buttigieg summed it up best when he said, “The role of leadership is to hold fast to those things we want to sustain and preserve, yet recognize what must change and point the way forward.” I think our communities are fortunate to have two very competent and capable leaders in Mayor Wood and Mayor Buttigieg, and we look forward to joining them as they point the way forward.

Jeff Rea is president and CEO of the Chamber of Commerce of St. Joseph County

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