When I was asked to go to the White House in early March to talk about business in Jackson, I didn't know what to expect. I just said "yes!" and headed to Washington, D.C.
Upon arrival at what would be a five-hour meeting, I found myself among 30 business owners and community leaders from the Jackson area around a big table with officials from the U.S. Departments of Commerce and Health and Human Services, the Delta Regional Authority, the White House Business Council, and even a White House chef.
They started out by telling us we were there because President Obama wants his staff to get beyond the "Washington bubble" and connect with business owners around the country to "hear from the job creators."
Even as I found myself wondering why the White House chef was on the agenda, I nodded my head and braced myself to think deeply and contribute. I may not have helped conceive Jackson Free Press Inc. to become a job creator, but that sure is what we do, in part. And like any other local business owner, we struggle to make ends meet, grow our staff, increase our pay and benefits, and deal with unfair tactics national chains employ.
Maybe I was in the right place.
We started out with the chief economist for Commerce, Mark Doms, showing us numbers about jobs and job creation (and loss) nationally, as well as in Jackson. The numbers showed, among other things, just how many government jobs have been lost or cut in recent years. For those who ideolo
gically hate government except when it's helping them, this may have been good news.
For people in that room--including the mayor, a state senator, a former governor and a lot of entrepreneurs--it confirmed one of our state's biggest challenges: Like it or not, government jobs bolster our economy. Those folks lose their jobs, and our business climate is hurt. Our clients, customers and suppliers take a hit, and it is harder to pay our employees.
One of my favorite numbers confirmed that local businesses are driving our economies. We learned that in recent years--and through the economic downturn--firms with nine employees or fewer created 87 percent of new jobs. Think about that.
It's certainly been true here. My company started with four employees a decade ago, and we have increased our head count five times over, and we're still growing.
The challenges we face as business owners quickly took center stage, especially as we attendees started speaking up. We spoke of many issues, but the one that dominated was the problem of work-force development. It took various forms, though--from the need for our educational institutions to train workers for knowledge jobs to the problems managers face with employees with poor work ethic, disdain for time management and other basic professional skills that too many students.
I was thrilled, in fact, that comments I submitted in advance about my business concerns were among the three that the White House team read aloud. I think I blushed (which I don't do often) when they read my concerns: "Young people leaving the capital city and the state; adequate education and work-force training; assumptions about people of color; diversity in business; city vs. state politics and its effect on Jackson; the inferiority complex that many Mississippians hold that blocks innovation and creativity; inadequate and biased media coverage of city/state."
Sen. John Horhn, D-Jackson, brought up the problem of work-force development and wasn't shy about talking about its "social aspect"--which includes drug abuse and work-ethic problems. The discussion quickly got real about the need to address the roots and causes of Mississippi's historic challenges, and no one in that room denied that poverty is a huge problem for our people, and for our business community.
This honesty and willingness to deal with context defined that meeting for me; it was so different than many surface business conversations. The problems business owners, and residents in general, face are so much deeper and more complex than those who pretend to solve them by trying to drown government in a bathtub or who blame everything on "frivolous" lawsuits. (Those are more concerns of big business more than those of us on the ground creating most of the new jobs.)
Let me put it another way: When a young person grows up in a poor neighborhood with parents who were taught to believe they couldn't succeed by grandparents who believed the same thing, we have a cyclical problem. When those young people try to get training internships or entry-level jobs that they can't afford a car to get to--or find decent public transportation for--they have a problem. When they're told by parents just trying to pay the light bill that the most important thing is to take an unskilled factory job than get training at a "knowledge" company, these kids have a long-term problem.
When residents flock to do business with companies that take much of our money out of state, then we are immediately behind the economic-development curve. And when our brightest young people can't wait to leave the state the day after graduation because people in power completely ignore their needs and ideas, then we have a serious "brain drain" problem (see this week's cover package).
It's time, as Lumpkins Barbecue co-owner Monique Davis said at the White House meeting, to "think outside the box."
It may be a cliche, but she's right on: In Mississippi, and in Jackson, we must get smart about causes and fixes; building a stronger and more educated work force; and keeping them here, or at least drawing them back.
One very effective way to do this is by supporting the work (and job creation) of local businesses and entrepreneurs, as well as creating unexpected partnerships, whether with the White House or someone across town we often disagree with.
Oh, and why was White House chef Sam Kass at the meeting? To make the point that unhealthy, overweight, always-tired citizens and workers are not going to help us innovate our way off the bottom. Hmmm. The gym is great for networking, you know.
Learn about White House assistance for business at business.usa.gov and how you help grow a healthier work force at myplate.gov. See #whbizforum on Twitter for more biz talk.
Donna, Thanks for the insightful, comprehensive and uplifting report. Maybe the Obama administration is really serious about facilitating POSITIVE change on the local level. Why couldn't his administration done this kind of gathering sooner? If they had been doing it all along, how come we (I) never heard about it? I get solicitations for donations from his election committee evey week! Going back to a positive note, if any readers out there want to experience the same uplifting feeling and sense of finally "being heard", come to the 830 AM to 10 AM Saturday Breakfast Club meetings at Koinonia Coffee House (136 Adams Street(601) 960-3008); accessible off of the JSU Parkway extension of Pearl Street. Don't come tomorrow (04/06/12). The big K will be closed. Next week will be fine
Frank, I can't speak for the administration, and don't know the answers to your questions about the meetings. I know about this one because I was invited and attended. I got a million story ideas (although I wasn't invited as media) as well as ideas for Jackson to write about. (In fact, the event inspired our current cover story about the direct connection between locally owned businesses and a strong work force.) As for the Koinonia talk, I tend to have other obligations on Saturday mornings (such as teaching my class, etc.), but it is a great discussion, as it is on Friday mornings when I can seldom attend (but usually have a reporter covering it). I encourage readers to go and join the conversation. In fact, at the last one I attend, we talked about many of the same things we talked about at the White House.
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