Riding Economic Whitewater
By Sheila Gibbons Hiebert
Communication Research Associates, Inc.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s new report ranking states on their economic progress shows Maryland in a strong position, ranked as the top all-around performer in innovation and entrepreneurship.
The report, “Enterprising States 2012“ says, “Maryland places first on the innovation list due to its high concentrations of high-tech activity and research. Maryland is the number-one state for academic research and development; and is the third-best state in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) jobs and in the concentration of high-tech business locations.”
A partnership with education is key, the report says: “States that are able to get students involved in the STEM fields will be the most competitive.”
To a great degree, the Southern Maryland economy reflects – and contributes to – much of the state’s success. St. Mary’s Public Schools Superintendent Michael Martirano has championed STEM education with academies that enroll students in fourth through 12th grades at Lexington Park Elementary, Spring Ridge Middle and Great Mills High. Enrollment at the College of Southern Maryland increased 6 percent from 2010 to 2011. At the Southern Maryland Higher Education Center, “Academic programs have been growing since the Center’s creation 17 years ago,” says Mel Powell, executive director, with a total of 93 academic programs for adult learners polishing their career credentials.
The unemployment rate is inching down. Through April, the St. Mary’s County’s 2012 unemployment rate averaged 5.7 percent – not yet back to the low average unemployment rate of 2.9 percent in 2007, but a definite improvement over the numbers calculated by the state’s Division of Labor, Licensing and Regulation for 2010 (6.5 percent) and 2011 (6.0 percent).
What’s not to like?
The question is to what extent the current positive environment can be sustained as the main driver of the local economy – federal dollars channeled through defense spending – transitions to a leaner budget.
For help reading the tea leaves, I talked to Glen Ives, group vice president of Sabre Systems, Inc., and former commanding officer of Naval Air Station Patuxent River, who offered his personal perspective: “From an economic and quality of life standpoint, St. Mary’s County in and of itself has been, and currently is, pretty good. I think there’s always an argument to be made that there are segments of our population that aren’t benefiting as much from our local economy as some other folks. Still, over the last 15-20 years you’ve seen quality of life and our economy continue to grow.”
The federal government’s investment in Pax River, he said, “has kept our community economically viable, even through the last few years of a recessionary time.” The big question, he says: “How are we postured for the future, particularly when we see things changing so quickly from global and national perspectives?
“Given that every part of the federal government is struggling with funding and resources, and that has had an impact on DoD, I don’t think it takes a rocket scientist or financial genius to figure out that there’s going to be an impact. We’re potentially talking a trillion over next 10 years.”
Ives said he’d like to see the state of Maryland, lauded in the Enterprising States 2012 report, step up efforts to re-envision the tremendous asset Pax River represents, utilizing its talent, knowledge base and state-of-the-art research facilities to develop areas of technology beyond its well-established defense capability. He also said the state should get behind efforts to develop for Southern Maryland a four-year institution with a strong STEM curriculum to give students from the region an opportunity to learn skills here that will qualify them for top jobs here. He had high praise for the work of the College of Southern Maryland (on whose foundation he serves) and St. Mary’s College (where he is a trustee), but asked, “Is that really enough when you think about the tech market?
“How come I don’t have a four-year institution down here that can actually help us leverage those resources and educate our young and older people in those key engineering and technology disciplines that can help further what we have here?” Ives asked. “We’re the fastest growing region in state, and we have so many good solid resources and good solid foundation, how do we get that momentum going? Can you imagine if the University of Maryland were to invest in a technology-based curriculum down here where our young people wouldn’t have to go out of the area to get the education they need and would want to stay here? We’d be a draw from other parts of the state or country to come to our four-year institution, not just for that, but for internships here, too. If we were to make it an institution centered around creating new technologies and supporting innovation, that would spin off opportunities for commercial applications for other small companies to want to be here. Then you’ve have a pretty nice mix for some pretty neat growth.”
Bottom line for operating in today’s local business environment: Diversifying your business’s portfolio, seeking new markets (including across borders) and retreating from a reliance on a single source of business.
“You have to be thinking very, very differently,” Ives says. “If you’re just starting to think differently, you’re probably already in trouble.”
Put another way, as legendary Redskins coach George Allen was fond of saying: The future is now.