Marin County's pathway to economic prosperity has troubling signs on horizon

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Commentary

Mike Blakeley is the CEO of Marin Economic Forum, a nonprofit organization focused on Marin County’s economy.

The Marin Economic Forum (MEF) enables Marin’s stakeholders to collaborate on improving the County’s economic vitality.

It’s our job to watch the economy and interpret the risks and opportunities for our residents and businesses.

Marin County is not a large economy, but it is a successful one. Over 64 percent of our population is employed and the median household income is almost double the national average.

We are fortunate to have important sectors like food and beverage manufacturing, agriculture, life sciences, and creative industries.

Our residents have terrific access to goods and services provided by local businesses; those same businesses are big contributors to local philanthropic causes as well as our tax base.

Despite strong economic recovery and growth over the past decade, Marin County has some troubling signs about the future direction of our economy and the challenges our businesses face. Well known issues like the high cost of living or growing commute times are compounded by other, not so obvious, facts:

Marin’s unemployment rate is just over 2 percent, meaning it’s hard for employers to add and retain staff.

Almost 30 percent of our population is aged 60 or older, expected to be 40 percent by 2035, while looming retirements of Marin residents will create bigger deficits in available workers.

Less than 10 percent of Marin’s population fit the “millennial” category (aged 20-34), significantly lower than other Bay Area counties.

Over 60 percent of Marin County’s workforce commutes in daily, a number that continues to increase. Not only does this stress our transportation networks but shows employers are dependent on staff outside of Marin.

At the same time, many of our highest skilled professionals seek work outside of Marin because there are better opportunities in terms of pay and presence of firms in sectors like technology.

Small businesses represent over 80 percent of Marin’s total businesses yet the financial and regulatory demands for them to grow are increasing as is the competition from e-commerce and the gig economy.

So, what do these data and others say about Marin’s economic future? We need a good way to ensure residents, elected officials and businesses are aware and able to address risks to our local economy. Here is how MEF is supporting such an effort in 2019:

We are working with multiple local partners to implement a large-scale, county-wide business retention and expansion initiative. Between 60-80 percent of any region’s economic growth occurs from existing businesses - not by attracting new ones. Our initiative will identify local businesses greatest challenges and initiate collective actions to address them.

A larger and more-skilled workforce is going to be required for Marin businesses to stay competitive and grow. MEF is working with the many public and nonprofit organizations that support job seekers to, better understand today’s-and tomorrow’s-demands from local employers. Our relationship to the business community is a critical asset for our residents.

Ensuring that Marin’s workforce is inclusive of an untapped labor pool that includes veterans, older adults, English-language learners and others that have skills but lack clear pathways to employment.

Economic development theory tells us that regions are always under threat, but also always have opportunities.

In a healthy economy like Marin County that is not always easy to accept-or do anything about. Ensuring our local businesses have the support they need to sustain and grow and that we as a county can keep our economic health as a priority is critical. Going forward, all Marin residents should see MEF as their resource for objective and practical economic data and analysis that can assist decision making and planning for our future.

Commentary

Mike Blakeley is the CEO of Marin Economic Forum, a nonprofit organization focused on Marin County’s economy.

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