Tucson Regional Economic Opportunities (TREO) and surrounding jurisdictions have created a comprehensive blueprint to create 40,000 high-skilled, high-wage jobs in Tucson in the next five years.
The updated plan comes after a 2007 strategy aimed at accomplishing a similar feat, but that plan was ultimately halted when the recession struck Arizona particularly hard, moving the Grand Canyon State from a top contender in income and job creation to amongst the bottom in the nation.
With the economy in recovery mode, TREO President and CEO Joe Snell – in collaboration with officials from the City of Tucson and surrounding municipalities like Sahuarita, Oro Valley, and Marana - decided to revive the effort.
Prior to the recession, the Tucson region was creating about 8,000 jobs annually, equivalent to 2 percent annual growth, a number Snell and those involved in the blueprint hope to recapture by centering the plan, which took nine months to complete, around four key strategic elements.
“It was important to establish core principles,” said Snell. “We did an analysis on what our labor force looks like, the skill sets of people, the educational outlook, and we monitored that to see where we can grow and what gives us our best chance, not just today, but tomorrow. We came up with four areas that will drive our future.”
Along with continuing efforts to make the Tucson area more business friendly, the 2014 blueprint will focus on four key growth sectors to include Aerospace/Defense, Bioscience/Healthcare, Transportation and Logistics, and Alternative Energy/Natural Resources.
“What was really nice about the first blueprint is it helped us look at ourselves and say, ‘What are we good at?’” said Guy Gunther, chairman of the board and vice president of Century Link.
In addition to defense industries like David Monthan Air Force Base and Raytheon, the Tucson region has been a juggernaut in attracting hi-tech companies in each of these areas, such as Sanofi Aventis, Roche, and newcomer Accelerated Diagnostics.
In order to continue attracting such businesses, the plan, with its slogan of “We Win As One,” calls for a cooperative effort from all jurisdictions in the Tucson region. Along with local business leaders, area mayors were involved in creating and supporting the blueprint.
“Our philosophy in Marana is that a rising tide raises all boats,” said Marana Mayor Ed Honea. “For example, when Sanofi and Roche came into Oro Valley, a percentage of the people who work at those companies live in Marana. Anything that happens regionally will benefit all partners involved.”
Oro Valley Mayor Satish Hiremath said while TREO has established the 40,000-job goal, it is up to the city and towns to bring that number to fruition.
“There’s a lot of confusion because this isn’t TREO saying they will create 40,000 jobs a year,” said Hiremath. “That’s not what the blueprint is about. The blueprint is what we need to create as a region, everybody included, to get to that number.”
Of the jobs created, the goal is to have one-third of those be export-based direct jobs, and the remaining two-thirds be indirect jobs.
Snell said export-based jobs are important because they are responsible for selling goods to areas beyond the Tucson region, which brings new money into the area.
“This way we aren’t just recycling our money,” said Snell. “This creates new wealth, which helps create a higher tax base, which can help us with things like infrastructure that are crucial in attracting new businesses.”
The blueprint stresses the importance not only of improving current transportation means such as roadways, but increasing accessibility to other regions with the hopes of taking advantage of national and international marketplaces.
Snell said transportation development is of particular importance given Tucson’s unique location.
“Of the 90 companies we have expanded or relocated over the last nine years, well over half of those are in the transportation and logistics industry,” he said. “The reason for that is that we serve western markets like California. We are at a nexus in the crossroads of goods moving through our region. The nation’s busiest port is in Long Beach, and it’s choked. It can’t grow anymore. We need to realize that and create an opportunity from that, particularly since we are in a unique position geographically as Mexico continues to emerge as an economic superpower.”
TREO has thus announced its support for the highly debated Interstate II to accomplish an effective trade route with Mexico.
The plan also calls for the insurance of competitive freight weight limits so as to better align with neighboring states like Texas.
“The number one driver for companies nowadays is the availability of talent, whereas before it was what kind of incentives they’d receive by locating here,” said Gunther. “Companies are looking at whether or not the area they are looking at relocating has the workers they need, and for the companies we are looking to attract, that means high-skilled workers.”
In 2009, TREO conducted an industry-wide survey to assess the number of vacant open positions in the region, finding 2,200 of them. Today, that number has increased to 2,500 vacant positions.
The hope is that the blueprint, when effectively implemented, will incentivize local students to stay upon college graduation, but also attract out-of-state interests.
“Sometimes too much is made of getting our university graduates to stay,” said Snell. “Sometimes, regardless of where they are, students are just going to want to leave after they graduate. That considered, we still have 2,500 open positions that need to be filled with an educated workforce. For the people who visit Tucson, the question is once they leave, whether or not they will come back. We need to build the high paying premiums to get those people to return.”
While the blueprint itself focuses on high-skilled jobs, that does not overshadow TREO’s interest or the necessity in creating low-skilled jobs as well, Snell added.
Out of 189 cities measured in a recent survey, Tucson currently ranks 140th, a number that TREO leadership hopes to improve on by promoting Affordable Care Act (ACA) signups.
The blueprint stresses the importance of a healthy workforce, which Gunther said translates to a productive workforce.
“We need to make sure people who live here or move here have easy access to health care,” said Gunther. “We want to promote a wellness-centered approach to healthcare by increasing awareness to people that we are being proactive in this area.”
Gunther added that the health care element goes beyond ACA signups.
“We want to take it a step further than that,” he said. “We want to be healthy before a hospital stay is needed. Our aim is to make Tucson America’s healthiest region.”
TREO and business leaders from Sanofi and the Carondolet Health Network recently developed an ad campaign that was federally recognized in Washington D.C.
Despite the accolades, Snell said issues such as the ACA are too often politicized.
“I’ve caught a lot of flack for backing this, but this isn’t about what side of the political aisle you’re on,” he said. “It’s about creating a unified approach that will help people view Tucson as an area that is friendly to a healthy working environment. We win as one.”