Chicago’s Path to Better Regional Competitiveness

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The city of Chicago stands high on a number of rankings that consider benchmarks such as economic output, educational attainment, public transit assets and quality of place. The numbers are pretty consistent across a number of research studies including the most recent one conducted by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).

In the Territorial Review of the Chicago Tri-State Metro Region, the OECD points to some remarkable statistics. Chicago is the third largest economic region in the U.S. with an extraordinary array of institutions of higher education and an adult population with above average attainment of college degrees.  Job and commercial centers are linked to employees across the region through a very good public transit system.  Moreover, the city ranks high in quality of life thanks to high value arts and cultural institutions and plenty of parks and outdoor public space.

Nonetheless, Chicago has some significant drags on its growth potential; drags that shave one or two percentage points from the region’s economic output annually. For example, despite having one of the nation’s largest passenger transit systems, it remains woefully underfunded and highway traffic congestion remains a problem.

Second, while the region’s colleges and universities turn out plenty of graduates to support a growing nanotech and biotech industry, there is a wide skills mismatch among the large pool of labor who fail to graduate from high school. One result of this skills mismatch is pockets of severe poverty that are socially and economically isolated from the parts of the region that are thriving. Worse still are the overlapping and often counterproductive myriad of agencies and institutions in the region charged to deliver pieces of the workforce development services.

Much to the benefit of Chicago-region decision makers, the OECD has the capacity to view the tri-state area through the global lens and offer recommendations that draw on examples from places as diverse as Singapore, Melbourne, Malmo, Sweden and Manchester. By way of example, Manchester has an independent statutory local authority charged with planning, transportation and economic development for the entire region.

Beyond the workforce and mobility issues, the other area for focus is new venture capital. The city and region lags in new business start-ups suggesting opportunities for a public and private sector effort to seed venture capital funds.

The Chicago Tribune called the report “a dose of candor about its economic malaise” in an article reporting on the study.

“Fostering cooperation across state lines, given the fiercely partisan political realities obviously is a tall order,” said Lance Pressl, who led the project for the Chicagoland Chamber.  However, “many business, academic and research organizations already operate regionally and can lead the way toward greater coordination.”