Business as usual not an option

In my keynote address to that gathering, I shared three ideas that could hold some promise in overcoming the city’s current challenges.

Expand the growth potential of small business. Research shows that on average, a small business that gets a contract with a large company will increase revenues and double employment rolls within only two years. To capitalize on this phenomenon, IBM created Supplier Connection— a free website that connects small businesses with an initial group of 12 member companies, including Citibank, Pfizer, Office Depot and UPS. The combined supply chain spending of Supplier Connection members exceeds $200 billion per year. Since launching the site, IBM has increased its spending with American small businesses by $40 million this year alone. Multiply that by 12, and the benefits to Atlanta’s small businesses could enable them to generate significant numbers of new jobs.

Close the gap between skills and jobs. As commentator Thomas Friedman has observed, the United States suffers from a skills crisis, not a jobs crisis. Over the next 10 years, nearly 14 million new jobs will be created for those with the right types of two-year community college degrees. These jobs in technology and other growth sectors are the gateway from poverty to the middle class for many Americans. But that gate will remain shut for the three out of every four community college students who currently fail to complete their degrees.

We must increase community college completion rates by improving the preparation for college-level work. One way to do that is through adoption of a new grades 9 through 14 model school pioneered by IBM. The first of these schools, the Pathways in Technology Early College High School, opened in New York City this fall. P-TECH will award both a high school diploma and an associate’s degree in technology to graduates who will then be first in line for jobs at IBM. Chicago will open five similar schools next fall, each focused on specific growth industries. The P-TECH model can work in any city under current budgets.

Create public-private partnerships to tackle big problems. Neither the public nor private sectors can overcome our current challenges by acting alone. Furthermore, cities cannot successfully attract and create jobs without coordinating education and economic development. But public-private partnerships can enable the creation and execution of targeted strategies that connect education to employment, and improve other areas of urban life.

The consensus of the metro Atlanta roundtable was that “business as usual” is no longer an option. As it has in the past, Atlanta needs to reach beyond its comfort zone to bring about its next era of prosperity. Public and private sector leaders will need to work together to bolster k-12 education, give students the academic tools and workplace perspectives they’ll need to complete their associate’s degrees, and focus those degrees on growth industries supported by a strengthened small business sector.

Atlantans have always worked together to rebuild, grow and lead. That spirit — that strength — has the power to transform the economic challenges of recent years into growth opportunities of tomorrow.

Stanley S. Litow is IBM’s vice president of corporate citizenship and corporate responsibility and president of the IBM International Foundation.

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