Mixed signals

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All Hail ye mountain solitudes! Ye wilds

Untrodden by the city’s noisy crowd!

I come to dwell with you

reject me not,

For I have lov’d you with an earnest love…

— Lysander, Spirits of the Wilderness, by Thomas Cole

 

It’s hard to evaluate an economic landscape whose prospects seem sunny at one moment and cloudy the next. Like ours.

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“We’re halfway through a recession,” labor market expert Paul Harrington told a roomful of people gathered for the second annual State of the Hudson Valley Economy on the campus of SUNY New Paltz on the morning of Wednesday June 24. Exhibiting a chart that by the definition of the economics trade showed no such thing, Harrington noted how the increase in the national gross domestic product (the value of all finished goods and services) had markedly slowed in the past three seasonal quarters. He also cited a survey of the Hudson Valley business climate that showed less optimism than last year’s survey had.

Those were the most prominent clouds.

The bright side was provided by the fact that whatever little change was occurring in the economy continues to be on the positive side. In his introduction SUNY New Paltz president Donald Christian mentioned the focus on successful economic clusters, the college’s 3D printing and engineering programs, and the investment in advanced manufacturing. The local stakeholders who had gathered for the conference were credited with displaying a “laser-like focus,” according to the characterization of Larry Gottlieb of the Hudson Valley Economic Development Corporation, the event host and moderator. Gottlieb didn’t neglect to describe his own organization as the leading economic development agency in the Hudson Valley.

This was the sunshine.

 

Like its landscape paintings, the Hudson Valley scenery often consists of some areas where light shines and others where it does not. In the past four years, the labor force in New York City, where the light shines brightly day and night, has grown by over three percent a year. The labor force on Long Island, the Hudson Valley counties and the Albany area has grown between one and two percent annually. The rest of the state, where growth in a shrunken labor force has been under one percent, is stagnating.

Job prospects are not unconnected to skills. “Labor markets have tightened up, particularly at the upper end,” reported Harrington. Though there are lots of top-end job vacancies, Harrington said he had not yet detected an upward pressure in wages, which on average he said have trended slightly lower since 2007.

In the question period, New Paltz engineering dean Dan Freedman asked Harrington when he thought wage growth would begin. Harrington’s answer: “There is no sign of it at all.”

If there’s no wage growth, young people, usually the lowest on the wage scale, are in a predicament. What do young people with skills do to secure a wage premium? Harrington didn’t hesitate. “Get another job,” he responded.

 

A lively panel discussion followed, elaborating on the theme that higher skills required higher education. The learning process in New Paltz students as a result of exposure to 3D printing should be seen not simply as an infusion of knowledge, arts dean Paul Kassel argued, but “as a change in the DNA that happened to begin with 3D printing.”

New synapses were created in student minds. A broad-based education would lead “not just to skills but to a career, a life.” Explained Kassel, “Design brings together engineering and the arts. 3D is a great way of doing it.”

Freedman said web design was “the easiest place to see the overlap between engineering and graphic design.” Engineering education was where mathematics was applied to real-life things, he said. In a knowledge economy, he added, engineers were best educated in a liberal-arts environment.

Harrington’s data had shown that the successful attainment of academic degrees was highly correlated with higher lifetime earnings. A broad education was needed. Manufacturing firms required basic skills as well as familiarity with technology, panelist Harold Ford of the Southeastern Council of Industry reminded the audience.

Kale Kaposhilin of Evolving Media talked about the role of the Hudson Valley Meetup which he had organized with others, describing it as “a way to reach the talent that’s spread out.” The region particularly needed to encourage community, he said, because it was changing so fast.

In his summary, Christian added a cautionary perspective appropriate to a program entitled Full Steam Ahead. Avoid all-or-nothing thinking, he advised. Other things than STEAM (science, technology, engineering, the arts and mathematics) were important, too. Among other things, it was important to think critically, to add to one’s general culture and to communicate well. Other participants completed the morning’s regional landscape by adding to that list the protection of the environment and working together better.

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