Economic Priorities at City Hall: Employment, Entrepreneurship, and Equity

Our annual analysis of mayoral State of the City addresses shows that cities are increasingly focusing on workforce and small business development through an equity lens. Here’s how several mayors from around the country are making equity a priority.

This post was co-authored by Emily Robbins and Dana D’Orazio.

The recent release of NLC’s 2017 State of the Cities report reaffirms that economic development matters and, to achieve success, cities must incorporate education and career pathways into their workforce and economic development plans. Economic development was the most talked-about issue in this year’s mayoral State of the City speeches, and mayors in cities of all sizes discussed often economic development in terms of jobs, education, and workforce development.

Mayors are not only realizing the importance of education in their workforce and economic plans, but also the need for multi-sector engagement and building pathways from college to career. At the same time, there is a sustained push for growth in entrepreneurship and small business development, particularly for enterprises led by minority and women business owners. Creating broader access to business ownership is a strategy for building community wealth and local job creation, and it’s imperative that cities create more equitable access to growth opportunities embedded in these approaches.

The Value of Partnerships

Nashville Mayor Megan Barry used her State of the City speech to share the city’s progress on creating thriving communities, underscoring the need for multi-sector partnership. “Our city is growing… because we have a talented workforce, fueled by a large and impressive group of college and universities… because business, nonprofits and government are true partners in improving our quality of life. These partnerships are the key to so many of Nashville’s success stories,” said Mayor Barry.

Other cities are supporting career pathways that are informed by and in partnership with key industry and education leaders.

Boston Mayor Martin Walsh emphasized the need to build pathways for youth through multisector partnerships with city, industry and education: “We’re developing a high-tech manufacturing sector… and more employers are coming, they are growing, they are hiring — and, at our request, they are in our schools, helping young people get ready for those jobs.”

In his State of the City address, Columbus, Ohio, Mayor Andrew Ginther spoke about future workforce needs as well as “what types of jobs will be available in the future and the training they require,” stating that “we are creating a Construction Trade Education Fund in conjunction with Columbus City Schools. I am committed to expanding career-based training in Columbus.”

In St. Paul, Minnesota, Mayor Christopher Coleman is working with industry to build pathways to construction positions, and stated that “the city of St. Paul is proud to work with our labor partners to make sure youth and young adults are able to navigate towards construction as a career choice.”

Embracing Diversity & Inclusion

Mayors are also creating opportunities to increase entrepreneurship in their cities. Mayor John Tecklenburg of Charleston, South Carolina, spoke about the need to focus on growing the local economy though small business development. “In terms of our economy,” he stated, “we focused on the areas most in need of immediate attention, expanding opportunities for women and minority-owned small businesses. This year we will also be hiring a full-time business specialist whose mission will be to assist and expand opportunities for small business, with a focus on minority and women-owned businesses throughout our city.”

Mayors also announced they will be using the local government procurement process to bolster local business development. In Memphis, Tennessee, Mayor Jim Strickland praised how the purchasing power of the city helped to ensure “minority and women-owned businesses are getting a larger slice of city contract spending — up 30 percent in just one year.” South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg announced a new partnership with the local Latin American Chamber of Commerce to offer trainings for small business owners on how to bid for city contracts. “We are working as a city to deepen our commitment to working with small businesses… so that being newer, smaller, or owned by a historically disadvantaged group is no barrier to doing business with the city,” said Mayor Buttigieg.

Creating Equity

Mayors are also aware that it is not enough to have pathways and programming if there is not equity in access to these resources.

In her State of the City speech, Mayor Rosalynn Bliss of Grand Rapids, Michigan, touted a new program designed to catalyze the growth of minority-owned businesses. “The goal of the project is to accelerate five African American-owned businesses that are up and running and could be growing faster,” said Mayor Bliss. “By identifying and removing barriers for five or ten businesses, we at city hall — and the broader community — can better understand systemic barriers that have prevented entrepreneurs from thriving.”

Austin, Texas, Mayor Steve Adler underscored the need for equity in his speech, stating that “the great prosperity in Austin is not being shared equally by all.” Austin is addressing equity issues in relation to education, workforce and economic development by focusing on an ecosystem of supports, and a key piece of this effort is Mayor Adler’s Community Workforce Master Plan. “If we’re going to focus our efforts at bringing the right jobs to town, we need to do more to make sure people who live here and need these jobs are qualified to take them,” said Mayor Adler.

“We need communities that offer equal access to opportunity and prosperity for all,” said Houston, Texas, Mayor Sylvester Turner. “Where a janitor can afford to take care of his or her family — like my mother, the maid, who struggled to take care of her nine children. We need communities where every kid can get a great education and have safe places to play when his homework is done. We need communities where mothers and fathers can afford a decent home for their families.”

Learn more about how NLC works directly with cities to achieve equity in economic development, workforce development and education through its Building Equitable Pathways to Postsecondary and Workforce Success project and its Equitable Economic Development Fellowship. Join organizers from NLC’s Race, Equity And Leadership (REAL) initiative and the National Urban League for interactive trainings on becoming a more inclusive leader at the NLC University Leadership Summit for Inclusion this October in San Diego.

Featured image: In Austin, Texas, Mayor Steve Adler stated that while the citywide employment is near three percent, the rate for Austin’s African-Americans is nearly 10 percent. “Most of the jobs created in recent years do not pay a living wage, and our middle class is shrinking,” he said. To address these issues, the city established an Equity Office. (Getty Images)

About the authors:

Dana D’Orazio is the program manager for postsecondary education at the NLC Institute for Youth, Education, and Families.

Emily Robbins is the principal associate for economic development at NLC. Follow Emily on Twitter @robbins617.