Virginia, it’s time to focus.
Old Dominion University economist Larry “Chip” Filer told a crowd of several hundred people gathered for the annual Virginia Economic Summit that if the state wants its economy to grow, the key is innovation and productivity.
Focus on that, “and get away from the idea that a Wegmans and a craft brewery” are going to attract millennials who will revive local economies, he said.
ODU’s Center for Economic Analysis and Policy presented its State of the Commonwealth report Friday at the Williamsburg Lodge.
The state’s gross domestic product growth has been lagging behind the rest of the U.S. and looks on pace to remain there, growing just 1.8 percent next year, according to the school’s forecast.
While national monthly jobs reports have been heartening – showing drops in the unemployment rate and hundreds of thousands of jobs added – Virginia’s growth has been glacial.
“Folks, there’s no other way to say it, we’re being left behind,” Filer said.
Filer and others once again warned the crowd about the state’s over-reliance on defense spending and federal contracts.
While improved since the 1990s, there’s still a long way to go, especially when comparing Virginia to other states that used to be heavily dependent on federal spending, Filer said. The private sector in those states – North Carolina, Florida and South Carolina – account for more of their individual state’s gross domestic product than they do in Virginia.
“We are never going to not do that stuff,” Filer said of defense and government work. “However, we have to find the opportunities for other things. … We have to grab it by the horns and tackle it and do it.”
Part of the issue is that not everyone who could be working is doing so. Virginia’s unemployment rate has been dropping, but that doesn’t include discouraged would-be workers who have given up looking, individuals collecting social assistance or older people who could still work but aren’t. The gap between the 4.1 percent unemployment rate and the rate that includes the rest of the potential labor force is the same as it was in 2010 when it should have been shrinking, Filer said.
Asked afterward about the shout-out to the coveted grocery chain and the craft beer phenomena that elicited a good deal of laughs and some applause, Filer said quality-of-life aspects can wait: “We’re sort of cart-before-the-horse-ing it. It’s the jobs. Always the jobs.”