Ed Barlow
Ed Barlow

Date Published: March 4, 2004

Futurist - Sullivan must recruit, celebrate diverse work force


BRISTOL, Tenn. - Sullivan County's most significant challenge to ensure economic vitality is recruiting and celebrating a well-educated, ethnically diverse work force. If a community doesn't have that, "it's got to welcome it and grow it or suffer the consequences," said futurist Ed Barlow.

Barlow, president of Creating the Future Inc., spoke to nearly 300 business, community and government leaders Thursday morning at Bristol Regional Medical Center about a variety of issues facing Sullivan County and its cities, including the economy, globalization, science and technology, demographics, tourism, and work force development.

Barlow is a futurist who has studied trends for 25 years. He is considered one of the most thought-provoking and entertaining speakers on the influences that will affect industry, organizational, professional and community settings in the 21st century.

Barlow said a community's economic vitality in the 21st century will be directly related to its ability to attract new people and celebrate diversity. "Your most significant issue in Sullivan County is recruiting people," he said.

Barlow said nearly 16 percent of Sullivan County's population is over the age of 65, which is 4 percent higher than the state and national levels. Since 1990, Barlow said the population in Sullivan County between the ages of 45 and 54 has risen 24 percent, while the number of people under the age of 24 has dropped by 3 percent.

"You've got an issue here, folks," Barlow said. "That group of 45- to 54-year-olds is going to start leaving the work force. You don't have anybody to replace them."

Barlow said you have to think carefully about an economic development strategy that primarily focuses on retirees. "Seniors create low-wage service jobs. They tend to withdraw from working, and they generally don't create new wealth," Barlow said. "A retirement community strategy has long-term negative economic consequences unless there is a diverse economic base of other employees around it.

"Otherwise, that's an accident waiting to happen." One solution is with the rising number of Hispanics in the country, Barlow said. The U.S. population will grow by 70 million people in the next 25 years, with 70 percent being ethnically diverse, Barlow said. "And most will be Hispanic," he said. "That is a future labor pool that needs to be recruited and celebrated.

"A significant component of your economic future in Sullivan County is recruiting Hispanics, making sure they get highly educated and integrated into the community. ... They can fill all of the various job categories you have." The future economic vitality model is based on the back of a well-educated, ethnically diverse work force, Barlow said.

Barlow said Sullivan County and its cities do not need to focus on their strengths. "In many cases your strengths have little or no future value. You literally have to build new strengths," Barlow said. "Ninety percent of the jobs that today's kindergartner's will occupy don't yet exist. "You need to focus on growing some new strengths."

Barlow said the nation is engaged in a continuum of change that is accelerating and that if we stop paying attention for a minute, then there's trouble. "Change is caused because new information becomes available that people take in and act on," Barlow said. "The way business is going to effectively deal with a changing environment is to increase its capacity to be close to customers and reduce the cycle time of getting to the market.

"What's going to make Sullivan County different and better than its competing counties is what you have to focus on."

One suggestion dealt with education. "When it comes to attracting businesses, if you have a low-skilled labor pool you will attract low-wage paying companies," Barlow said. "If you have a high-skilled labor pool, you will attract companies that pay high-skilled labor.

"You cannot say you're going to go recruit companies that pay better wages unless you can come to the table and prove you've got an educated labor pool." Barlow said people need to take a serious look at the educational system in the United States, particularly in the fields he says will be growing in the next two decades - biotechnology, nanotechnology, materials sciences and life sciences.

"We've got to see K-12 education study and focus on current pathways, align with current and emerging employer groups," Barlow said. "You've got make sure our higher-education institutions can develop and get rid of certificate and degree programs at a faster pace."

Barlow said one of the emerging areas that will affect 25 percent of the jobs across this country in the next 25 years is nanoscience. "You take look at the curriculum of your colleges, universities and K-12 institutions, and you'll see how much conversation there is about nanoscience," Barlow said.

Companies that are thinking about growing or relocating, their number one concern is quality-of-life issues, Barlow said. "Number two are skilled professionals, number three is proximity to the market, number four is a skilled labor pool, and number five is low business costs," Barlow said. "Two of the top four are related to people." Barlow suggested that tourism is a way for Sullivan County to recruit people to the Tri-Cities.

"When a visitor is here, you showcase for them the quality living and employment opportunities to grow a business here," Barlow said. "When somebody comes here, you should showcase for them how they can live, do business and retire here." Another area of advice Barlow mentioned improving is training for currently employed people, something he said is the least organized, valued and funded support system in the county.

"We have no effective system of retraining adults," he said. "We don't value it, and that's the group I'm most concerned about." Seventy percent of the people that will be working in the United States in 2008 are working with no training support for upgrading their skills to be competitive in the changing environment, Barlow said.

"You have got to be continuously looking for that next success factor if you want to create that competitive economic advantage," he said. "I think somebody in a region like Sullivan County is going to say we have to put a major emphasis and additional dollars in training adults.

"They will market that as an economic development advantage."

Copyright 2004, Kingsport Publishing Corporation.