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Westside Economic Alliance forum hears from a panel that says cheap land and utilities take a back seat to worker skills, mobility and 'great places' in suburbs such as Beaverton, Gresham and Vancouver.

PMG PHOTO BY PETER WONG - Tricia Ryan, right, chief operating officer of Worksystems Inc., makes a point at a Westside Economic Alliance breakfast forum Dec. 12 at Embassy Suites in Tigard. From left are Frank Angelo, moderator; Alisa Pyszka, president, Bridge Economic Development of Portland, and Teresa Carr, director of business development and commercial properties for the Port of Portland.When it comes to shaping the future of the regional economy, experts say offering cheap land and utilities — once considered essential to "smokestack chasing" — are secondary to attracting and retraining people.

"Today it is all about talent," says Alisa Pyszka, president of Bridge Economic Development of Portland. "That is what is driving all location decisions. I'm not saying the others are not important anymore, but they have moved down the checklist of priorities.

"Place matters… because the talent everyone is chasing can go anywhere — and they are going to great places."

Pyszka was one of three panelists, all women, at a Westside Economic Alliance breakfast forum Dec. 12 who spoke about the changing nature of economic development.The panel was moderated by Frank Angelo.

Pyszka said the recent decision by Amazon to establish second headquarters outside Seattle makes her point. Amazon split the headquarters between the Washington, D.C., suburbs and New York — though Manhattan was substituted after protests in Queens — over a myriad of other communities.

But she said that after a decade of dominance by large cities, and rising prices that led to the growth of connected rural communities such as Bend, suburbs are emerging as the new winners in attracting talented people.

Among the notable regional developments here, she said, are downtown Beaverton — with its Restaurant Row and pending Patricia Reser Center for the Arts — Rockwood Rising in Gresham, and the waterfront in Vancouver, Wash. "The next trend is making your place great," she said.

She noted studies showing most new jobs are created by existing businesses, and just 3% created by businesses moving from elsewhere and 11% by businesses opening second offices.

Need for training

Tricia Ryan, chief operating officer of Worksystems Inc., said it is not enough just for business and government decision-makers to consider the current economy.

The official unemployment rates are 3.4% in Washington County and 3.5% in Multnomah County, both covered by the workforce training agency, which served 67,500 people in 2018. In addition, Ryan said, 29,000 people ages 16-24 — about 11% of the total — are not working and not in school. She said a partnership with Beaverton School District and Merlo Station High School for pre-apprenticeship programs, which may lead to high-paying work in the building trades, may serve as a model to help youths from bouncing from one low-paying job to another.

By 2030, Ryan said, significant shares of the workforce in the six-county Portland area and Washington County — about one in six workers — will be in jobs in danger of being lost to automation and other changes as rated by a pair of 2017 studies by McKinsey Global Institute.

"We need to be doing our best right now to prepare for that future of work," she said.

Of the top 10 occupations they have now, Ryan said, only two pay a self-sufficient wage for a single parent to support two children.

"If they lose their job, they are likely to get their next job that matches the skills they have, but is likely to be automated," she said. "You have a group of people who, if they lose the positions they are in, the skill set they have does not allow them to go to a safe job."

Ryan also said workers employed in the "gig economy" — temporary, on-demand or contract work — lack the benefits and protections afforded employees in other businesses. She said system adjustments must be made.

Teresa Carr, director of business development and commercial properties for the Port of Portland, said mobility will continue to be important in the regional economy.

The port is remaking a Portland International Airport terminal originally built in 1958, and weekly shipping container service is set to resume in January after a hiatus of almost four years.

Carr said port-related jobs have proven they can pay wages close to the region's average.

"The companies we have worked with have shown it affects the bottom line in a positive way," she said.

Workforce diversity

All three panelists agreed that with the retirements of post-World War II baby boomers and a shrinking workforce, the regional and national economy cannot afford to overlook skills training for all people regardless of background.

"We need to listen to different voices, not the same voices showing up," Carr said. "Then we need to act on what we are hearing."

Ryan said although there is a fair amount of collaborative effort now, businesses and governments have to do more to reach out to community organizations and to higher education.

"Not one single organization has enough money to do this alone," she said. "We do not have enough expertise to do this alone. The magnitude of the problem is too big."

Pyszka said business entrepreneurs will increasingly be people of color, who now constitute about a third of Washington County's population.

"It's not going to be people who look like us," she said. "It's going to be people who look like them."

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