I was invited to attend the Milken Institute Global Conference 2011 by my friend Leo Bottary on behalf of Vistage International. Having never been, I wasn’t sure what to expect. My first thought: holy cats, there are a LOT of powerful people here. My second thought: most of them are way smarter than me. My third thought: wow, this is going to be quite an event.
All of these things were true.
Help Wanted: Seeking 12 Million Jobs
This was the panel led by Vistage Chairman and CEO Rafael Pastor, and featuring people like John Engler (former Governor of Michigan), and Susan Windham-Bannister, President and CEO, Massachusetts Life Sciences Center, and a few other smart cookies. The topic was to answer questions like this: How will the Great Recession and its aftermath change the structure of employment in the future? And the answers were interesting, challenging, and pointed towards some really difficult business and government decisions left to be made for us to have any success with finding more jobs for people.
For instance, Susan Windham-Bannister from the Massachusetts Life Sciences Center explained a program where they spend some government money to help grow new businesses, and then seek out venture money to further develop these companies. On the one side, government wants to create more jobs, which leads to a better level of prosperity for a state. On the other side, venture capital firms want to keep overhead low, so it was my feeling that perhaps these two forces were at odds with each other. Never the less, that’s the environment as it stands right now, and that’s the challenge facing business and government.
2.2 Trillion Dollars in Unmet Infrastructure Needs
Thoughts of how this gets solved were tricky. Mary Kay Henry, International President of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) pointed out that there are 2.2 trillion dollars in unmet infrastructure needs, and that there seems to be a big gap between that number, which would create many jobs, and the funding, which seems to favor projects other than infrastructure. Meanwhile, to point out again what Susan Windham-Bannister was saying, funding something like a $13 Million pumping station allowed Genzyme to build an additional $10 million business unit that created 300 jobs.
So, how will those challenges be handled? How does one decide when “roads and bridges” are what’s going to fuel growth and contribute to a better quality of life?
The ROI On These Projects Is Huge
John Engler, former Governor of Michigan and president of Business Roundtable, pointed out that fixing up the US air traffic control issues is a $40 Billion project, but that this adds nothing to the deficit over time. He also pointed out that similarly, improving electrical power efficiency is a huge opportunity that reduces waste spending and thus provides a strong ROI for the project. The question/problem/opportunity then becomes, why is it that government gets in the way all the time?
Engler said this poignant gem: “China didn’t set up US regulatory rules. We did this to ourselves.” One other gem of his was calling for some kind of testing acceptance between Europe and the US in things like safety compliance. For instance, he said, if they crash a car in Europe to measure its safety and it passes, that same car should be deemed safe in the US. That would speed up acceptance of things like drug trials and medical device implementation, and it would give us a faster marketplace for growth.
One of my favorite bits was when Rafael Pastor asked this question: Is unemployment cyclical or structural? Meaning, is unemployment just something that comes in waves, or is it something that’s symbolic of a system/structure problem? His point was that one’s view of this problem partially helped prescribe a point of view. I found that question something I hadn’t much considered before, and that, such as it was, is what I found most of all at this event.
If you want to learn more about the panel you can actually watch it here.
What I’m Learning at #GC2011
These people are economists, nonprofits, financial wizards, and futurists. I got to meet with Jeff Clavier from SoftTech for a moment. Tomorrow, I’ll spend some time with Bill Gross, and others. It’s a far cry from the crowd I normally spend my days with, and that has proven interesting, but also instructive. For what I also thought about after spending this time with these people is that what you and I know, this whole social media thing, is every bit as important as we sometimes think it is.
Because one thing I’ve noticed is that these conversations don’t spread far enough. People are writing into notebooks, not tweeting to their constituencies. People are meeting with old friends, not opening themselves up to serendipity. People are, more than ever, going to need what we know how to do, to wire up these global conversations that travel in and around the real global economy. They’re going to need to follow more people like @bill_gross, who made it easy for me to keep track of two rooms at once.
But we, on the other hand, are going to need to turn out social media skills on things far more interesting and challenging than our Klout scores. We have to look at what influence really means. We have to understand how to equip and empower more than 140 characters worth of value. We have to realize how trust spreads in this new frontier. We have to help people with strong voices in person become strong stewards of those voices in their new digital tongue.
So, not only were the panelists seeking out 12 million jobs, but you and I have the opportunity to think bigger than what we’re doing right now, and see what we can do to improve the lot of people all over the globe. It’s big. It’s more than what we normally think about in the course of a day. And it’s everything.
What say you?