Some weeks ago, UTW publisher Keith Skrzpyczak asked me to write a long form essay on economic development and "futures" in Tulsa.
You can find it in this issue. It's entitled "Beyond the Chamber." (See Page 16). The notion wasn't to call for the abolition of the Metro Chamber which is, after all a voluntary organization, but to think through where development, economic job growth and futures are in the region, how a rapidly evolving Metro Chamber fits into the picture and to highlight the growing import of other organizations, other agendas in crafting Green Country's future.
The "Beyond" assignment was difficult -- it called for a lot of re-thinking, causing me to call on my memory of stuff in Tulsa's near past and forced me to cogitate a lot on how the national economy is changing, how development actually happens and how organization and execution fit together.
But it also gave me an opportunity to talk to a whole slew of people from the business community, folks from the entrepreneurial world, from academia, from Tulsa's booming downtown and from the dark star.
Every year the Tulsa Metro Chamber selects a new chair, a signature volunteer who serves for a year and typically helps to set the direction for the County's most awarded business confederations. The just retiring Chamber Chair is Dr. Gerard Clancy, OU/Tulsa president, academic medicine professional and one of Tulsa's true visionaries. He is ramrodding the new OU/TU School of Community Medicine (SOCM) --a breakout project that bears the same relationship to existing medical schools as the Princess phone does to an iPhone.
The new medical school is Fortune Magazine and a host of other national observers say, nothing short of an upending of medical education, and the role of preventive health and medicine in U.S. health care. The SOCM project, funded in part though the George Kaiser Family Foundation, is precisely the sort of next step effort that needs to typify more of the region's development.
Dr. Clancy in his chair post, pushed for staff diversity at the Chamber and, with CEO Mike Neal's very competent execution, got a lot of things done, including completion of a bevy of regional compacts with surrounding towns/Chambers -- something that will help insure that internal competitive dynamics in the region don't forestall area wide economic progress.
The new Metro Chamber chair is Ms. Becky Frank, CEO of Schnake Turnbo Frank -- the most powerful PR/communications consulting operation in Oklahoma. She brings deep relationship building and communication skills to a big post in a time of great change and challenge for Tulsa. Frank told me that a key early task for her was slating an "Envision" meet-up sometime later this year: This will be a chance for Tulsans to step back and look at our regional economic trajectory and to plot fresh strategies.
Workers of exceptional quality who are also very agile and profoundly motivated are at the center of America's economic challenge. A recent piece in the New York Times on how iPhones are produced is a profound reminder that modest worker compensation in China and elsewhere in Asia is actually a small part of the advantage that drives outsourcing and the deterioration of America's industrial spine. It helps to remember that Germany and Japan, which have very high industrial wages, are also outdoing America and are in fact an integral part of Apple's renown supplier chain for the both the iPhone and the iPad. Having workers who are extremely skilled, very flexible and super dedicated counts for much more.
And here we come to one of the Chambers' great challenges and one that Tulsa needs to re-think: reworking our somewhat tattered relationship with labor/management. The Chamber in particular needs to revisit its ongoing engagement with Tulsa's labor movement. Here we need some detachment and a more clever strategy -- this relationship is at the core of getting things back on track with our ailing manufacturing economy here and across the country.
Interestingly, Germany manages to combine high industrial wages, a very positive labor/management relationship and some of the most profitable products in autos, energy, and machine tools and production technology.
Tulsa's taxpayer-funded Helmerich Advanced Manufacturing project at OSU's downtown campus and the Fab-Lab, a tiny but critical, new stage prototyping/educational "factory", are two projects with grand scale upward "industrial" potential. And Dr. Ebony Johnson's new McClain High School robotics and aerospace projects could be an awesome template for down the road pre-engineering/super tech course work.
Keep 'Em Flyin'
The American Airlines (AA) crisis that is, the company's declaration of bankruptcy portends big changes in employment levels, aerospace contractor use in Tulsa and other convulsions.
Discussions I had recently with a couple of veteran American Airlines employees at American Airlines were instructive: both workers describe how exciting the better part of the last five or six years has been with AA's "Working Together," a fascinating task re-work initiative conjured up by management and labor at American Airlines.
One of them described the project as a great effort to involve people who know the most about aircraft maintenance and operation -- field people -- into the decision-making and operational improvements circle at AA -- a process, I was told, that turned a cost center into a revenue production spot for AA.
This kind of labor/management collaboration looks to be an invaluable part of the re-kindling of a host of industrial projects in America. Unfortunately, I was also told that the project had effectively come to an end at AA. Hopefully the multiparty discussions with the Tulsa Transport Workers, a couple of other critical unions, AA management and the Chamber will re-start this kind of hyper productive "all-in" engagement.
More Audacity Please
The still under construction Maxwell Center and the new Arts and Humanities facility, the Kaiser/Guthrie initiative and the continuing flowering of the Brady Arts District are little short of phenomenal. But we need to think about the Arts as something other than supplemental, something closer to a primary line that Green Country can use to fuel employment and new physical growth, not only in Tulsa's downtown, but also, as UTW arts writer Bradley Morris outlined in last week's issue, (Jan. 19-25 "Seeking a Suburban Arts Scene") in the larger Metro area.
Being bold is a central part of what can surely power Tulsa's next stage. Frank, the new Chamber Chair, talked about the bold thing in her installation speech a couple of weeks ago at the Metro Chamber's annual meeting. Being bold, being audacious, is what stellar American companies are about these days and it's a big part of what we need more of from City Hall, from the Metro Chamber and from the welter of emerging development ventures, community development folks and our downtown/Northside and west side entrepreneurs.
And so there we have it -- a focus on dramatically improving labor-management relations and empowering workers, conjuring up a bevy of breakout initiatives that could transform perceptions of the region and mobilizing our best intellectual and street-wise development talent -- like never before: all getting underway as 2012 starts -- what more could you ask for?
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