By Wade Stewart
I serve as the board chair of the West Branch of the Tacoma – Pierce County Chamber of Commerce. At our board meeting today, we enjoyed a presentation on the economy of our region by Ali Modarres, Ph.D.
I took copious notes and I wanted to share a bit of what I learned. Most of this isn’t verbatim – I’m glad I don’t have Dr. Modarres’s classes, my note taking skills leave a lot to be desired.
Where We Are
Dr. Modarres’ regional study methodology includes not just the raw numbers, but the “soul” of the community as well. In our region (mostly Pierce county but some of south King as well) he shared many insights. Some of those insights were expected, and many were surprises.
The prevailing attitude in our area is that while we could be “another Seattle”, many feel we were robbed of that “someone stole our lunch”. The facts are, however, that we might not exactly want that.
Pierce County is growing, and that growth has in many ways been motivated by Seattle’s success. As they become successful, housing prices increase, and drive more workers down south.
Housing now becomes a major growth industry, and we see strong construction business down here. There are opportunities for Seattle-like housing prices, and in our lower-cost area means higher quality homes.
Tacoma has been stale, and contributing to that are our low professional salaries. In our area we see only 80% of the national average for these high-skilled wages, and there aren’t enough of these jobs.
Yet to Come
Pierce County has one of the youngest populations in the state. 20% of people are under 15 years old. In just 10 short years we will see huge growth in the labor market. But where will they work?
Right now the 4 biggest sectors of employment are (not in order) government, health, education and retail. It’s no secret that retail is flagging. The power of companies like Amazon are driving more of this business online. There is a chance that both the healthcare and education sectors can plateau. Where does that leave us? More government jobs isn’t what is going to help.
Dr. Modarres spoke of mono-centric cities which focus on one type of industry as the primary sector of work. Redmond, Bellevue, and Seattle could be considered broadly as a more multi-centric community of cities. Tacoma should not compete on that score but rather compliment them. Opportunities for cybersecurity and biotech are ways that our region could compliment and work with the synergy created up north.
We had some great questions from the audience of business owners and civic leaders, and I tried to chime in with one; I see a lot of high-end service industry starting to grow here like restaurants, and I also see that our housing costs are rising as well. Are these factors which would benefit or hinder us when we’re trying to attract new sectors to our area?
I can’t be relied upon to accurately repeat Dr. Modarres’ answer, but I can say that the two factors are certainly indicators or where we are, and where we might go if we cannot bring new strong sectors of employment.
Another memorable idea in the context of marketing ourselves to new employers is that we cannot brand our communities in ways that they really aren’t. Saying you are a tourist destination without a robust place to visit will backfire and could take years to overcome. Branding without backup will backfire.
The message was clear – we need to get our professional salaries more in line with the national averages, and we have to start planning for more employers soon. Our kids are growing up in a place where the forecast has a pretty cloudy picture for jobs.