Ed Barlow
Ed Barlow

Futurist offers sound advice for our region

Friday, March 12, 2004

Funny thing about the future. It happens whether you're ready for it or not. That, in essence, is the message Ed Barlow brought to local leaders this past week.

Barlow is the president of Creating the Future Inc. and a professional speaker on the influences that will affect industry, organizational, professional and community settings. He's held a variety of executive positions in health care, business, higher education and a Washington, D.C.-based management consulting firm.

On its face, Barlow's message is really nothing new. In fact, it's one we've noted in this space many times before: the best way to prepare for the future we want is to create it. Of course, that's often easier said than done.

"Some people make things happen, some people let things happen and some people say, 'What happened?' " the well-known futurist often observed. Needless to say, Barlow's job is to help local officials and the communities they lead to learn to recognize and focus on the first option. As Barlow sees it, rapid changes in technology, especially bioengineering, demographics and politics are reshaping the global economy in all sorts of ways, both large and small.

If communities want to attract employers and employees as that future unfolds, he says, they have to learn to think and compete with a globally diverse mindset.

In Barlow's vision "the future isn't bad, it's just different, but we are in a continual change that is getting faster."

In our region, as in many others, preparing for this future means recognizing that our present strengths count for very little, Barlow says. That's because every technology, every process, has a limited life span.

Many of the low-skilled jobs, in particular, will continue to disappear. Whether these jobs will be replaced by better paying, high-skilled positions depends on the choices communities are prepared to make to create a sufficient pool of properly trained workers. As Barlow observes, "Jobs follow the labor pool, not the other way around."

The futurist noted that in a little more than a decade, from 1990-2002, Sullivan County has seen substantial growth in the number of older residents, in particular a 56.4 percent spike in those 85 and older. At the other end of the demographic spectrum, however, the county has experienced a 3.3 percent drop in those 24 and younger.

On the state level, Barlow says, Tennessee ranks a disappointing 45th in the nation in per-capita K-12 school funding and suffers from a knee-jerk "no-tax-increase" mentality that inhibits progress on many fronts.

This may not be an especially attractive picture, but it is an accurate one. More important, it's one we all need to recognize and work to change.

Barlow believes Sullivan County needs to find ways to tap the enormous entrepreneurial potential in middle-aged residents who have excellent educational and work experiences, many of whom have taken early retirement and are underemployed and underutilized in the marketplace.

Finding a way to create second careers for this group is very important, he says. Barlow also speaks of making our region more welcoming to diverse cultures, especially those workers from India, whom he says could bring enormous entrepreneurial vigor to our area.

The futurist says Sullivan County, in cooperation with Kingsport, Bluff City and Bristol, should work to create a "vice president for human capital development" that would help match the area's employment needs with the right employees.

What Barlow is talking about is creating a competitive advantage for this area. In the final analysis, as the futurist points out, there are more than 15,000 economic development districts in the United States.

Given that enormous number of competitors, Sullivan County and its cities need to find those things that make it better than or different from other spots on the map. That means addressing fundamental issues such as the adequacy of our educational systems, our overall quality of life - anything and everything that will contribute to an inviting community atmosphere, both professionally and personally.

A smarter workforce with a variety of skill sets is obviously one of the keys to progress, as is a system to constantly retrain adults so that they continue to have marketable skills.

It's been apparent for some time that this region has been losing its competitive advantage. The old, standby strengths, such as manufacturing, have been declining and will likely continue that decline.

Pretending otherwise won't change that. What will is working together to create regional marketing and capital funds to attract and help both local entrepreneurs and those from elsewhere to start a new business or industry. Educational cooperation is a critical component here as well.

As Barlow puts it, we need to be ready to say yes to change - or suffer the consequences of remaining the same.

Of course, whether we embrace change or not, it will come. But thanks to Ed Barlow, we can confront that change and face that future with greater confidence. Now that we know the questions, we can find the answers, working together.

Copyright 2003 Kingsport Times-News.