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By Phil D’Amico, director of business growth, The Chamber of Commerce of St. Joseph County
Jeff Rea has been the president and CEO of The Chamber of Commerce of St. Joseph County for the past year. Before joining The Chamber, Rea was mayor of Mishawaka for the past seven years, and before being elected mayor, Rea was director of Economic and Community Development for eight years under former Mishawaka Mayor Bob Beutter.
|Jeff Rea, president and CEO of The Chamber of Commerce of St. Joseph County|
Q: Jeff, we talk a lot in our region about transformation of an antiquated manufacturing community into a high-technology-based economy. How do you see that transformation process occurring?
A: I think it’s interesting, in the past and in the old days of manufacturing, you could get a high school degree, and in some case maybe not earn a high school degree, but get out of high school and go work in a factory and make a good living for many years. Now that is not the case.
Q: Great point. I think you could work for many years and never change jobs and earn a good wage, have good benefits and acquire a good pension. Is that what you saw as well?
A: Oh yeah, absolutely. There was no question that a family could earn a great income and have great growth and prosperity. It was not uncommon for a person to get out of high school, work in a factory for the next 40 years and never change jobs.
Q: That is a little different today. What ways do you see today being different?
A: Well for starters, the average person changes jobs 14 times before the age of 38. That, in and of itself, is astounding and makes a huge difference in today’s economy. Second, almost every job requires at least a high school degree. There are very few jobs anymore that you can get by without a high school diploma. So you ask yourself, what do the people do when they drop out of high school? There are 10,000 Hoosier high school students each year that drop out of high school, so what happens to those individuals? That is a scary thought, as well as a very big challenge.
Q: What are the requirements of the jobs of today?
A: I think you at least need some post-high school education, with at the very least certifications in a particular field. If you look at today’s jobs, nearly 65 percent are what’s called middle-skill jobs, which are the manufacturing jobs of today; 25 percent require a higher skill, which equates to a bachelor’s degree or higher; and then the balance of 10 percent is lower skill, which is no education past high school. So as you see, there are not many options for lower-skill individuals.
Q: So, would one of the greatest challenges in transforming the area’s economy from old manufacturing to new technology be the type of workforce you have?
A: I think creating a talented workforce is one of the most critical factors when you talk transformation. Everything we do requires some form of computer training, math skills and problem-solving skills. So, how we educate our workforce and then train them after high school is very critical. It should be noted that the 25,000-employee companies like Studebaker or Uniroyal are never going to be around again. Businesses are smaller, leaner and more advanced, so people need to be able to bring an array of skills to the workforce. People are cross-trained, multi-trained and technologically savvy, which helps businesses stay lean and more profitable. People need to have more than just a high school diploma, so they can keep up with ever-changing technology.
Q: That has to be a challenge for our high schools, doesn’t it?
A: I think keeping our youth educated in technology changes is critical, and probably one of the most challenging issues teachers face. If you think about it this way, teachers are teaching kids today to prepare for jobs that have not even been created yet, or exist today. That is a huge challenge.
Q: Let’s talk about the future. What do you see as the future for our region in this transformation process?
A: I think one positive is that our region is already diverse, with a number of different types of market sectors. If you go back to the mid-1970s, we were about 40 percent manufacturing, and only about 10 or 12 percent health care. Well, today we are about 34 percent health care and about 16 percent manufacturing and distribution/logistics, 24 percent government and education, 16 percent service-related and 10 percent retail. We have greater diversity among our market sectors.
Q: How big is health care in our community?
A: Health care has become a prominent piece of our economy. We have two major medical hospitals in a community our size, which is very rare. We also have specialized medical centers focused on the latest and greatest in technology as it relates to cancer, and other highly specialized treatment centers. Again, this is incredible technology that can separate us from other communities our size.
Q: What role does the University of Notre Dame play in this transformation process?
A: Notre Dame is a very important piece in this process. The focus it has had on becoming a major research and development institution is very big for our community. The jobs of tomorrow we spoke about earlier may come from the technologies created out of our educational institutions. Notre Dame and others are doing amazing work in the health fields, energy fields, nanotechnology and green initiatives. All of these new ventures lead to new business startups, which lead us to new job creation.
Q: What are some other areas of strength for our community?
A: Well, because of our being centrally located in the United States, we are strong in distribution and logistics, data storage, which leads to great opportunities in information technology, and we are a great service sector provider.
Q: What do you see as the critical factors that will lead to our success or attracting new opportunities for the future?
A: I think there are three main factors. First and foremost, do we have a skilled, trained and educated workforce? Next is the cost of doing business. Is it reasonable enough for people to do business here? And, finally, what is the ease of doing business here? In other words, do we have a business-friendly environment?
Q: Sounds like you and The Chamber will be busy over the next few years?
A: This is an exciting time to be in our community and we love every minute of being a part of transforming and energizing our community.