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Innovation key to economic recovery?

By: 8 June 2013 2 Comments

Arkansas SunriseIt’s no secret that the economy may be recovering but people are wondering where the jobs are. According to the Arkansas Department of Workforce services, the unemployment rate here in the Natural State was 7.1 percent in April — an improvement over 7.3 percent in the same month a year ago.

Here’s something to keep in mind, however — the Department of Workforce Service reported there were 1.236 million Arkansans working in April, down from 1.263 million jobs reported a year ago. How did unemployment decline even though fewer people were working in April? Simple — the workforce shrank by 31,200 people between April 2012 and April 2013.

Where did those 31,200 members of the workforce go? Certainly some retired, but the Chicago Tribune has a plausible explanation about why the national workforce is in decline — some people have simply given up on finding work, so they’ve dropped out of the workforce completely.

Mike Steely — formerly of Arkansas Capital Corporation and now focused on educating students and adults about innovation as well as consulting with small businesses and startups — has taken a hard look at the unemployment problem. He says the answer in creating more jobs has to do with creative approaches to problems — teaching people how to innovate and offer solutions that are unique.

Of course, that approach is nothing new. Retailing, for example, had been around for a time until Sam Walton set up shop in Bentonville and came up with some new ways offer lower prices to customers. That idea gave birth to a little company called Walmart Stores Inc. — the largest retailer in the world that runs about 9,000 locations internationally.

We’ve seen a pattern of sorts play out time and time again. Whether its Sam Walton and Wal-Mart, Steve Jobs and Apple or Bill Gates and Microsoft or Henry Ford and his eponymous car company, Steely said American small businesses with unique ideas are the ones that wind up becoming huge companies that provide millions of jobs to Americans.

That time-tested formula can still hold true, and Steely said his mission these is teaching children, starting in the sixth grade, to think creatively — to find unique, innovative solutions to problems. The idea is that, over time, Arkansas will have a workforce in place that is full of people who know good ideas when they see them and are able to put those ideas into practice. Once harnessed, those new ideas will translate into jobs for Arkansans.

Steely said the process doesn’t stop with schoolchildren, of course — any educational efforts should include adults so that they, too, are encouraged to come up with ideas and tap into private and public resources to use those notions to build companies and create jobs.

Steely pointed out that innovation doesn’t just belong to the technology industry — traditional businesses can play in that arena, too. Remember the Sam Walton example? Retailing had been around for some time, but Walton simply found a way to do things differently.

Steely said one other thing is important for people to consider — the old paradigm under which someone got a degree, joined a company and worked there until retirement is rapidly shifting. It’s not uncommon for people to change jobs or even careers more rapidly than in the past and more workers are taking on work done outside of their full time jobs. That freelancing is, often, unrelated to someone’s “day job.”

In this environment, then, workers must be flexible and adapt well to change. Steely said things are changing, indeed, and more than a few members of the workforce have to be flexible and keep their skills relevant at a time when the nation’s employment patterns are in flux and uncertainty is the new norm.

To stay in touch with Steely and find out what he’s up to, visit his LinkedIn profile.

About: Ethan C. Nobles:
Benton resident. Rogue journalist. Recovering attorney. Email = Ethan@FirstArkansasNews.net.

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