Over the past decade, jobs-centered development has emerged as a promising alternative to the South’s traditional strategies of economic and workforce development. Following the Second World War, southern leaders waged an aggressive campaign to transform the regional economy. To this end, officials mixed public policies with private market forces to create jobs and cultivate a more skilled workforce. In doing so, they created a distinctive model of economic growth: a model based on luring industries south by offering a low-cost business climate, subsidizing key expenses, and providing customized workforce training.
Viewed in one light, this strategy has paid impressive dividends. In little more than six decades, the South has turned itself from a national economic laggard into a leader. Between 1980 and 2000, for instance, regional per capita personal income – an important yardstick of economic well-being – rose by 43 percent after adjusting for inflation. On an annualized basis, nine southern states recorded rates of per capita income growth at or above the national one.
Yet this prosperity largely has bypassed the South’s low-income people and places. The region continues to trail the nation on vital measures of economic and social well-being and remains America’s poorest section. In 2007, some 8.5 million Southerners – 15 percent of the region’s population – had incomes below the federal poverty level; another 10.8 million individuals had incomes too high to be officially poor but too low to make ends meet.
By the late 1990s, it was becoming obvious that the economic challenges confronting low-income Southerners and communities were a by-product of the region’s customary approach to economic and workforce development – an approach which revolves around selling the region on the basis of low labor and business costs and pays little attention to questions of economic equity. The guiding assumption has been that robust job creation will resolve social ills like poverty and inequality. This has not happened.
In response, regional officials have begun experimenting with new methods of job creation and skills formation. While these experiments have occurred in a piecemeal, decentralized manner, they share enough common characteristics to form a distinct field of practice known as jobs-centered development. This model focuses on growing a regional economy by cultivating the skilled workforces demanded by local industries and connecting area residents – especially low-income ones – to quality jobs, educational opportunities, and career pathways.
Understanding the need for jobs-centered development as an alternative model of regional advancement requires a familiarity with the shortcomings of traditional methods. Specifically, leaders interested in pursuing jobs-centered development must possess an awareness of the extent of low-wage work in the South; a recognition of how low-wage work flows from the region's standard approach to economic and workforce development; and a familiarity with the basic goals, components, and assumptions of jobs-centered development. An understanding of the lessons learned so far and the challenges posed by the ongoing recession also is needed.
The Mary Reynolds Babcock Foundation recently released a study entitle "Jobs-Centered Development: The Need for a New Approach " that looks at the lessons learned and the ongoing challenges.