Growing the economy

ON TO 2050 seeks to improve our region's ability to adapt in a changing global economy and to thrive by reducing economic inequality. 

NASA image of the Chicago region from space.
Photo credit: NASA

Developed and emerging economies around the world have been transformed in recent years by new technologies, advances in freight and logistics, and evolving consumer demand. These trends and climate change will increasingly shape global commerce. Metropolitan Chicago is well-positioned not just to withstand these complex factors but to seize new opportunities due to our strengths among a range of industries and our diverse and skilled population. The region is also endowed with the preeminent North American freight hub, active and engaged civic leadership, and world-class institutions of education and research.

Graphic illustrating the Chicago region's connections to the global economy.

ON TO 2050 seeks to improve our region's ability to adapt in a changing global economy and to thrive by reducing economic inequality. Metropolitan Chicago needs to improve opportunities for employment and robust economic output while taking deliberate steps to ensure prosperity for all. These goals -- economic opportunity and growth -- are inextricably linked. As our prolonged slow growth continues to lag behind peer regions, lower- and moderate-income residents are leaving to seek economic opportunity elsewhere. Sustaining broad economic growth requires improving the region’s business environment to enable industries and workers alike to compete globally and prosper locally.

While healthy competition within the region has its benefits, emerging opportunities and challenges increasingly require a regional approach for economic and workforce development to capitalize on our distinctive assets. Human capital -- among the most important determinants of regional economic vitality -- transcends jurisdictional boundaries. Amid stagnant growth in the labor force, institutions of higher education and research help to retain and develop the region’s innovative talent. Business expansion depends on reaching markets around the world with goods and services that can compete successfully in the global economy.

ON TO 2050, as a whole, seeks to ensure metropolitan Chicago’s future economic success. The recommendations in this chapter address the initial steps in workforce and economic development that are necessary to achieve broad prosperity. Investments in such activities must be inclusive, prioritized, and responsive to market shifts and economic outcomes. Metropolitan Chicago’s lagging growth underscores the need to organize currently diffuse policies and programs and, when appropriate, to align local objectives with regional goals. It also accentuates the need for widespread, coordinated actions rooted in the needs of particular communities and industries. Several strategies seek to ensure that residents can access opportunity and thrive in the workforce. While these recommendations are geared toward addressing needs of the working-age population, the importance of equitable access to high quality pre-school through secondary education cannot be overstated.

This chapter describes recommendations to promote:

  1. Inclusive growth by broadening opportunities for innovation and promoting pathways for upward economic mobility.
  2. Resilience by taking a regional approach to economic development and better preparing the workforce for future economic shifts.
  3. Prioritized investment in coordinated economic and workforce development activities.

Robust economic growth that reduces inequality

The region is endowed with extensive assets, including its people, industries, educational and research institutions, infrastructure, and location. Yet, the region has experienced prolonged slow growth. During 2001-16, overall economic productivity here increased on average just 0.8 percent annually, coupled with just 0.2 percent annual employment growth. Across numerous metrics, the region has consistently lagged behind peers and national averages. Advancing the region’s economic goals requires action now to bolster a range of private and public initiatives already underway on a regional level. Moreover, economic opportunity and prosperity remain out of reach for many residents, particularly for black and Hispanic residents and people with disabilities. These disparities frequently have roots in discriminatory policies and practices that have shaped opportunity for people in the region and across the nation. New research points to the need for coordinated action by underscoring the role of economic inequality in impeding metropolitan Chicago’s ability to start and sustain stronger growth. In short, state and local governments, the private sector, and educators need to pursue continuous improvements to excel in a modern economy. Smart, inclusive, coordinated strategies can ensure that metropolitan Chicago remains a destination for business activity, innovation and invention, and diverse human capital.

Responsive, strategic workforce and economic development

Today’s economy has grown increasingly complex, transformed by technological advancements, global competition, emerging industries, and evolving consumer demand. As a result, metropolitan Chicago needs to strengthen itself in light of both anticipated and unforeseen economic shifts of the future. Effective public policies and public investments can connect limited resources across governments at every level with private and nonprofit partners. Yet decisions directed at workforce and economic development frequently lag far behind the pace of change and do not reflect the breadth or scale of our region’s economic assets. Instead, administrative challenges or insufficient information can limit the economic benefit of public expenditures.

Analysis of the regional economy makes it clear that achieving stronger growth will require policy-based decisions executed through coordinated, sustained initiatives rooted in the needs of particular communities and industries. The effectiveness of these efforts can be bolstered through better coordination that is performance-based relative to goals, responsive to changing demands, and strategic in leveraging the region’s strengths. Metropolitan Chicago remains a global economic engine, and by enhancing our workforce and economic development practices, we can secure our position in the 21st century’s changing markets.