Stephen Moret is known in economic development circles now as the leader of the team that brought Amazon’s East Coast headquarters to Virginia. But he made his reputation earlier leading the Baton Rouge Area Chamber and then Louisiana’s job-seeking agency, the state Department of Economic Development.
All along, he made a useful observation that there are parallel paths to economic progress: business development and product development.
The latter is what Louisiana really needs.
There's a role for industry-hunting experts in business development for Louisiana, and there have been significant successes for our state in bringing in better-paying jobs and some in coveted sectors like technology companies.
But it is our product that the salesmen can promote, and it is lacking.
Some of that is certainly based on structural difficulties that have long held Louisiana back, just like our neighbors in the Mississippi Delta states of the South. Inequality is one such issue: Generations of poverty whether in the inner city or in rural Delta parishes, are difficult to overcome; a culture of jobs in extracting wealth from the soil or the oil fields meant that education was not sufficiently valued. Economists call that a "resource curse."
Louisiana was not ready for the future that came like a job-crushing freight train. Federal Reserve economists have looked at high-skilled workers since 1980; for those in the Top 10 percent — typically college-educated — real wages nearly doubled, while others languished.
That effect came at the same time as the knowledge economy began clustering these employees in major cities tied most directly into the burgeoning global economy. Even the energy economy in which Louisiana was a world leader saw a flight of many professional jobs to Houston.
The good news is that the former Shell building on Poydras Street in New Orleans is now home to DXC Technology, a tech firm, although those jobs are growing over time. Still, those kinds of wins show that the state can be part of the national and global economy in this new world.
And whether in the French Quarter or in Acadiana’s unique Francophile culture, there are unique ways in which Louisiana’s product is poised for future growth.
But successive oil-price busts since 1980 have not helped Louisiana’s economy, and the national trends identified by the Fed researchers work against even the larger cities in southeastern Louisiana. Whether it is strengthening our universities in national competition for talent or giving even the poorest families the early-childhood experiences that allow children to flourish in school, Louisiana’s product needs innovation and investment.
We won't be in competition even for mini-Amazons unless our product is competitive at a higher level.