Sunny Future? 

Emphasizing education and emerging industries could improve the county's economy

While the local economy boomed during a few of the last 10 years, overall the period was pretty much a bust. As a result, future economic trends don't appear very positive, but some observers believe things can improve.

Over the last decade, partially because of the severe recession, the local unemployment rate nearly doubled to the high single digits. At the same time, the percentage of people in Pima County living below the federal poverty level rose from below 15 percent to above 19 percent.

During the same period, the percentage of local service occupations—which are typically lower-paying than many other positions—showed a significant increase. These jobs now constitute 93,000 of the total 429,000 civilian occupations in Pima County.

At the same time, because of the near collapse of residential and commercial building, the percentage of construction jobs in the economy fell.

"For us to rely on population growth (like in the past) is a huge mistake," says Bruce Wright, UA associate VP for University Research Parks.

Joe Snell, CEO of the Tucson Regional Economic Opportunities (TREO) organization, adds in an e-mail: "Our current budget situation points out how important it is to diversify our economic engines beyond growth and service-related jobs."

Wright believes Tucson's economy should fundamentally change. "We need to produce real products and value through new technologies and services," he says.

For now, Jim Mize, employer outreach manager for Pima County's One Stop Career Center, sees somewhat better economic times ahead.

"It does appear all economic sectors are hiring," Mize reports, "but in very small numbers. We're seeing improvement, and it's better than it was one or two years ago."

Mize emphasizes the role education plays in who gets hired. "If I'm an employer," he says, "my hiring requirements, such as education and experience, are higher (than they once were)."

Tougher hiring requirements translate into higher unemployment rates for those with less education. As Mize points out, nationally, dropouts have an unemployment rate 50 percent higher than high school graduates, who themselves are unemployed at a rate twice as high as someone with a college diploma.

For his part, Wright, a TREO board member, sees education as one of the keys to Tucson's future economic opportunities. "If education isn't our first priority," he states, "we won't be competitive."

But in a state known for its low funding of education, how can the goal of making it a top priority be accomplished? Wright thinks it might be time to look locally instead of toward the state capitol for additional educational funding.

He suggests that if voters supported a tax increase for transportation, as they did in 2006, maybe they would do the same for education. "It's a huge challenge to be ranked 48 or 49 among states in education funding," Wright states.

Snell agrees that education is important. But, he writes, "Yes, our education funding is low and the perception of that is a challenge. However, ultimate success in attracting or expanding a company isn't solely reliant on that one factor."

Wright also thinks some of the negative national publicity Arizona has received in the last year will have to be overcome.

The immigration issue is one factor he mentions. "That negative image," Wright says, "will continue (because of recently introduced additional immigration legislation) and will be difficult to deal with."

Snell states of this negative publicity, "Prospective businesses do not like instability and controversy." But, he continues, "Site selection decisions are more business-driven than political."

On the other hand, both Snell and Wright see several positive signs for Pima County's economic future.

Snell lists numerous Pima County advantages, including "Aerospace and defense (as) a solid economic engine—one in five workers here employed in the industry. We can build on that."

Another local advantage, Snell suggests, are "emerging industry strengths like biosciences and solar."

Wright thinks the region has a competitive advantage when it comes to these and some other industries.

Wright cites three factors giving Pima County a boost in the solar energy arena. The first, he says, is the commitment of Paul Bonavia, CEO of Tucson Electric Power, to make the company a leader in renewable energy.

The UA's commitment to solar energy is Wright's second positive point. He thinks the multi-disciplinary, comprehensive approach being taken on researching new materials and energy storage could pay major dividends.

Finally, Wright includes the Arizona Corporation Commission's renewable energy standard of 15 percent by 2025 as his third reason for optimism.

Based on these factors, Wright says: "We need to make sure nationally and internationally people are aware of what we're doing because Tucson is a hot spot for solar."

The University's Tech Park on the city's southeast side plays an important role in this solar effort. Wright thinks with sufficient financing it can do the same for border security research.

"This will be the place to do that," Wright suggests, "if we get Department of Homeland Security funding."

As for the UA's other research park, Wright says: "We're trying to bring the new bio park (along South Kino Parkway) on line. Once it is in play, we'll be very competitive at a second tier level with cities like St. Louis and Kansas City."

"There's reason for optimism in each case," Wright concludes of local economic development efforts. "But we're competing with others, so we must have perseverance and patience."

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