The vitality of Main Street businesses is top of mind for residents and policymakers as retailers, restaurants, and bars begin to reopen across northeastern Illinois. These establishments, along with other businesses selling products and services locally, employ 63 percent of the region’s workforce, and help to make our communities great places to live.
Even as we begin to reopen and recover from COVID-19, we must not lose sight of the region’s more longstanding economic challenges. Our past economic drivers have been declining, without being replaced by new sources of growth. Our traded industry clusters — groups of firms that together produce products and services for markets beyond our region — had already not been faring well. With a few notable exceptions — for example, Transportation & Logistics and Biopharmaceuticals — most traded industries in northeastern Illinois have been losing jobs and struggling to compete since at least 2001.
Strengthening our regional economy will take a balanced approach that invests in jobs at both local businesses and in industries that export beyond our borders. Research shows three reasons why investments in traded industry clusters drive regional growth. First, the success of our exporting industries generates income that residents and businesses can spend at other local businesses. Second, traded clusters can set us apart from peer regions by becoming centers of national and global innovation, in turn driving future growth and resilience. Third, jobs in traded industries provide higher wages and better job quality, creating new opportunities to stimulate inclusive growth.
Public and private sector leaders must come together to invest in workforce training programs, remove barriers to employment, and give communities of color more equitable access to the good jobs that traded clusters provide. Employment that offers living wages and good benefits can both reduce existing inequities and help provide for more sustainable regional economic growth.
The economic crisis demands a swift and multifaceted policy response. To support immediate recovery, direct support should be provided to employers, the workforce, and local governments that continue to provide vital services. Simultaneously, local and regional leaders must engage in coordinated regional economic development planning and develop strategies to bolster our traded clusters. These changes are a necessary step toward growing new middle-skill jobs and addressing the lack of access to opportunity that affects our residents and communities. This is as true today as it was before the COVID-19 pandemic.
Read more about CMAP’s recent research on metropolitan Chicago’s traded industry clusters.