Bay State summit eyes economic growth

Government officials, led by U.S. Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, recently gathered the business community of Southeastern Massachusetts for a brainstorming session to identify avenues for economic development.

The “economic summit,” held last week at Bristol Community College in Fall River, focused on several key issues facing the region. From marine sciences to workforce development, local and national leaders said the key to achieving any of the goals will be partnerships.

To experience growth it will take a combination of the federal government, the states and the local communities working with the business community,” Kennedy told a packed house at BCC’s auditorium in the Margaret L. Jackson Center for the Arts on Feb. 8.

Kennedy, who spoke briefly before being whisked back to Washington for impeachment hearings, said Southeastern Massachusetts has had its share of obstacles to economic success, including the troubled fishing industry.

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He added that the region is on the cusp of major growth if, for example, New Bedford can expand its airport and a proposed commuter rail linking the region to Boston is completed. Kennedy said that regional tourism is bound to grow with attractions like the national historic park in New Bedford.

Also on hand for the summit was Secretary of Commerce William Daley, who addressed some of the concerns facing the fishing industry.

“Our role as a regulator is to enforce the laws and protect the natural resources, but at the same time understand the tremendous impact we have on families in the region,” he said. He expressed hope that a proposal to allocate $67 million to programs for New England’s fishing industry by next year will get Congressional approval. The money would be used for research in fisheries, to find ways of diversifying the industry and to buy out fishing boats.

Daley expects better economic times for all industries in the region because of the favorable market that exists today. He said low interest rates, unemployment and inflation are indicative of “one of the best times” to be in business.

Daley highlighted several initiatives that the business community would be wise to jump on. The first is electronic commerce, which he said tripled from a year ago and posted $9 billion in sales.

“Never in the history of the country has a technological change has had such an impact on how businesses do business,” he said.

Trade was another area Daley said companies can use to grow. He said while eight out of every 10 large companies are involved in trade with other countries, only about one and every 10 small manufacturers are doing so.

Kennedy also stated, “It is important to expand trade. There are products (manufactured in Southeastern Massachusetts) that are in demand to other parts of the world.”

As part of the summit, the audience broke up into groups that were headed by a panel of experts in a variety of areas. The groups looked at marine sciences, developing trade opportunities, promoting and assisting small business, advancing the region’s tourism industry and workforce development.

Based on the turnout for the workforce training panel it was obvious what most business leaders were concerned about in Southeastern Massachusetts.

Kelly Carnes, deputy assistant secretary for technology policy at the Department of Commerce, said technology is responsible for 50 percent of long-term economic growth. In order to keep up with technology, teaching institutions, employers and the government will have to step up to educate the workforce, she said.

Carnes said colleges are also having a difficult time keeping pace with the technological advances being made while kindergarten through high school education has problems in teaching related skills.

Meanwhile, small and mid-sized businesses are not showing commitments to further training.

“They fear if they train a worker (he or she) will leave,” said Carnes, adding that companies are “raiding” each other’s workforce.

Robert Brown of Texas Instruments’ Attleboro location believes the word “raiding” was a little hush.

“I like to call it encouragement. We just have to encourage employees to jump ship,” said Brown, who was a member of the panel discussion. Brown added that the competition between companies for qualified employees will always exist. He said though that by working together, the business community can provide more candidates to choose from.

By teaming up companies can have more strength and funding to set up training programs and have greater power to turn to the government for assistance.

Brown added that the holes in the educational system in the first place can be partially blamed on the business world.

“In the industry we expect the world of academia to train people for what we need, but we don’t talk to the world of academia to tell them our needs,” he said.

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