The Sweet Spot
We need to capitalize on our strengths, which include New Orleans’ workforce.
Fifteen years as a military wife has taught me a lot about change. The deafening sound of moving trucks backing up to my front door, strangers packing away my personal belongings and the struggle to assimilate into new communities, weather conditions and unique cultures are aspects of every readjustment period I’ve had.
Despite the uncertainty, each city I arrive in presents new opportunities of personal and professional growth.
In 2016, my family relocated to New Orleans. Like many, we’d watched as the Big Easy — one of the South’s most celebrated cities — struggled to overcome the devastation of Hurricane Katrina and a sorrowful aftermath painted, most vividly, with images of crime and poverty.
But unlike these depictions, what we discovered upon arrival was a city as strong and fearless as a phoenix rising from the ashes. What we found were parishes working to solidify their government’s efforts to attract new residents, fight crime and welcome tourists back to the area. To our surprise, New Orleans wasn’t a wilted rose, but a city blossoming like lilies in a field.
Within a few months of engaging the business community and connecting with good people — born and raised on the sweetness of powdery beignets and spicy seasonings — I realized that, unlike so many moves I endured, this one had a sweet spot.
After 17 years in economic development, I’ve seen the interworking of business, workforce and city revitalization. For years I worked as a public policy writer and executive-level director in many capacities for the Maryland Department of Business and Economic Development (DBED), which followed a lengthy stint in shopping center management and real estate development in Birmingham, Alabama and Atlanta, Georgia.
What I enjoyed most about my work, as well as our relocations, is discovering what makes each city’s business community thrive. What I learned along the way is that the economic engine in every city I’ve lived in — every city in this country — is the training, attraction and retention of a highly skilled workforce.
The strength and diversity of a city’s workforce define the fortification of the local economy. High paying jobs symbolize growth and sustainability. The existence of corporate headquarters, research and development universities and emerging startups are springboards to filling personal and professional coffers with the resources needed to revitalize communities.
In cities like Baltimore, educational institutions and federal facilities like Johns Hopkins University and the National Security Agency (NSA) spur new business creation, R&D opportunities and job growth. In municipalities like Pittsburgh (the last city I lived in before relocating to New Orleans), I saw up-close and personal the negative impact of steel industry job losses, as well as the growth of the tech start-up ecosystem spinning out of Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Pittsburgh.
Here, in a city most known for its billion-dollar tourism and hospitality industry, sustainability of the workforce continues to be a driving force after Katrina. Despite a recent Brookings Institute economic indicators report that ranks Greater New Orleans’ growth at the bottom for economic prosperity in comparison to other cities, New Orleans/Metairie ranked 69th and 56th (out of 100) in economic growth, higher than the metropolitan area. In light of the city’s large investments in new hotels and residential real estate, the growth in New Orleans/Metairie is the result of capital-intensive advanced industries.
After only a few months working as the strategic marketing and public relations consultant for Delta Personnel, a 49-year-old staffing solutions agency in Metairie, I saw firsthand how the hard work of local talent in areas pertinent to the tourism and hospitality industry continues to create economic opportunities for New Orleans.
In 2016, a third of Delta Personnel’s billable hours went toward filling positions in the hospitality and tourism industry, while the firm continues to see an increase in the need to fill management-level and administrative positions.
No one tells the city’s story better than workforce development professionals. Within the confines of HR departments and staffing agencies is where recruiters are attracting, training and retaining talent that allows the $7 billion tourism industry to prosper. Cities like New Orleans prove that workers with creative and traditional skills can still provide talent that is essential to business growth.
But New Orleans is also making its mark on the professional services and tech start-up community. In 2017, Smartassett named New Orleans the No. 1 growth in tech city and No. 5 for women in tech.
In 2015, according to The Data Center, New Orleans led the U.S. with 64 percent higher than average startups-per-capita. And based on New Orleans’ May Economic Summary from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the city has seen a year-to-year increase in education and healthcare employment.
The tourism and hospitality industry continues to be a major economic driver in New Orleans, but future growth will lie in specialized research and technology — major driving forces for cities ranking at the top of the economic prosperity chart.
New Orleans has a long way to go, but the road to get there should be paved by sustainable industries that take advantage of skills honed within the region. Retaining oil and gas as a major economic force is critical, but the infusion of resources into our educational institutions, startup companies and the attraction of corporate headquarters will help revitalize the local economy.
Good cities are built around good people. New Orleans is filled with hardworking citizens who are as dedicated to building a strong workforce as any in major cities across the U.S. Limiting how we characterize a city’s progress solely to crime rates and per household incomes suffocates the real potential an area has to offer. This city’s sweet spot is its culture and vibrancy — two things that cannot be duplicated or emulated by anyone.
How we see our city will impact how the world sees us. From my view, the city’s growth looks promising — as promising as watching the cybersecurity industry spur high-paying jobs in Baltimore or the healthcare industry cultivate innovative jobs in Pittsburgh. New Orleans has an opportunity to build on the growth of the tourism and hospitality industry, to nurture a healthcare ecosystem and to be a major player in new technology development — a key job creator in the innovation economy.
The steps we take must be intentional and strategic, maintaining our unique culture while preparing workers for the future workforce is a goal worth fighting for.
Michelle Jackson is the owner of PR Solutions, LLC of Louisiana, a strategic marketing and corporate event planning consulting firm; founder of the i.Invest National Youth Entrepreneur Business Competition and executive director of LifeSkills Foundation, a 501 c3 organization dedicated to advocating for youth entrepreneurship.