Asheville faces a future of “certain uncertainty,” Duke University Professor Jim Johnson told area business leaders gathered for the 17th annual Asheville Metro Economy Outlook on Sept. 12.
The William Rand Kenan, Jr. Distinguished Professor of Strategy and Entrepreneurship at UNC’s Kenan-Flagler Business School, Johnson shared ideas for positioning the city and the region in the face of what he characterized as a rapidly changing and unpredictable economic landscape. This year’s event, organized by the Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce and held at the new Mission Health/A-B Tech Conference Center, drew several hundred attendees, though the appearance of Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump downtown later the same day may have stolen a bit of its thunder.
Ben Teague, executive director of the Economic Development Coalition of Asheville-Buncombe County, warmed up the crowd before Johnson’s talk by enumerating the goals for the AVL 5×5: Vision 2020 plan. The plan, Teague explained, aims to create 3,000 direct new jobs with $50,000 average annual earnings, attract 50 high-growth companies to the area, and spur $650 million in new capital investment and $10 million in new equity investment.
The EDC is making progress toward those goals, Teague said. 15,000 potential jobs and $1.7 billion in capital investment are currently in the EDC’s pipeline, with over 3,000 jobs and $440 million in capital investment in the final stages of due diligence and commitment, he reported.
Buncombe County is currently enjoying 3.8 percent unemployment, Teague said, continuing the county’s enviable track record of having the lowest rate in the state for the 16th consecutive month. The Venture Asheville program filled 132 jobs last year through its online job bank. What’s more, “Those are great jobs paying from $75,000 to $200,000 salaries,” he explained.
One of Asheville’s biggest challenges, Teague continued, is developing the talents of its workforce. With several education partners, he said, the EDC is currently working to develop Campus Asheville, a social media platform that will help local college students connect with the area’s business and employment communities.
As Johnson took the microphone, Teague’s upbeat message gave way to a more sober one. Johnson asked the audience to contemplate the many crises that have marked the last two decades. From natural disasters such as earthquakes and tsunamis to the Ebola epidemic to the rise of the Islamic State and the current refugee crisis in Europe, Johnson posited that the number and frequency of disruptive events has increased dramatically in recent years. “Certain uncertainty is the new norm,” he repeated.
Johnson traced recent trends which have seen offshoring in employment affect progressively more highly skilled workers. And he doesn’t think we’ve seen the end of job loss yet. Continuing offshoring — even in white-collar job categories previously viewed as secure — along with increasing automation mean that permanent, long-term jobs will become scarcer. That reality, he said, is reflected in today’s “gig economy.” He urged audience members to visit an online site where freelance jobs are posted (he mentioned www.upwork.com) to see how easy it is to solicit bids for just about any task.
In today’s economy, Johnson said, personal marketing and branding are increasingly vital. “Companies are looking to be mean and lean,” he noted. “They are looking for people who can groove on ambiguity.”
Echoing Teague’s earlier comments about the critical importance of education and training, Johnson said young people need to assemble a “competitive tool kit” of skills including analytical reasoning, entrepreneurial acumen, contextual intelligence, soft skills/cultural elasticity, agility and flexibility.
One of the Asheville area’s strengths, Johnson said, is that “people want to be here.” That’s demonstrated by statistics which show that the area’s 15 percent population growth from 2000 to 2010 exceeded the national rate of 10 percent. The southern region also grew more slowly than Asheville, at 14 percent, though the state grew faster at over 18 percent.
During that same period, the racial groups that saw the largest population increases in the Asheville area were Hispanic residents (132 percent increase) and those reporting two or more races (91 percent). Other groups also saw large percentage increases, but their overall numbers remained small; those groups included people identifying as Pacific Islanders, Asians and another race not listed. One group that hardly grew at all was African-Americans, whose population grew less than one percent.
Johnson also looked at the age characteristics of the area’s population. Though deaths outnumbered births, our population still grew. Thus, the driving force behind our growth is in-migration, or people moving here from other parts of the country. The largest increases came from people aged 45-64 (30 percent) and those over 65 (21 percent).
Showing maps derived from census data, Johnson demonstrated that poverty is concentrated in small areas in Buncombe County, jeopardizing the potential of children growing up in those areas. “Aging communities will need that talent,” he said. Deaths from heroin and prescription drug overdoses are also on the rise, and those hit younger portions of the population the hardest, Johnson pointed out.
Based on the data, Johnson presented a set of recommendations for the Asheville area:
- Embrace immigrants: immigrant populations are the fastest-growing portion of our society, and we need them to secure the future
- Reengineer K-12 and higher education for the new normal: make sure students have the skills and training to deal with volatility and ambiguity
- Pursue age-friendly community development: everything has to change in the built environment to accommodate an aging population, from building design to sidewalks
- Support encore entrepreneurship: the over-50 population has the best track record of any age group when it comes to successful entrepreneurship
- Devise anti-poverty strategies
- Address hypersegregation