Doing things differently in the Inland Empire: June 2020 vs. today and into the future – San Bernardino County Sun

By Paul Granillo | Inland Empire Economic Partnership

One year ago we were experiencing the worst economic downturn of our lifetime. Almost instantaneously, many of our largest sectors came grinding to a halt, causing thousands of people to lose their jobs. Having lived through this economic crisis and others in the recent past, there is a need to create a more “resilient” regional economy in the Inland Empire. Should we worry about this challenge now, when we haven’t even put the pandemic behind us? Yes, we should, even as we tackle the immediate problems associated with getting the Inland Empire economy fully back on track.

Let me explain why it is time to think about a more resilient economy by talking briefly about a business management term often used, namely the difference between “urgent” versus “important.” The Inland Empire, at this point, should only have one urgent matter in mind: how to mend the economy, that is, reduce unemployment to pre-pandemic levels and restore jobs and growth to the region’s industries. We are still far away from that. The unemployment rate is well above where it should be and total employment is still one-third below its pre-pandemic level. While most affected sectors have recovered almost fully, the leisure and hospitality industry is still well below the target, having recovered less than half its job losses. Getting the region’s workers and industries back on their feet is clearly the most urgent need.

However, the track record of the region’s recovery from economic downturns reveals an important, though perhaps less urgent, need. Historically, the Inland Empire is one of the first regions to be hit at the beginning of a downturn, one of the last to come out of a downturn, and it frequently faces more severe dislocations during downturns. Given these circumstances, there is a need to create a more “resilient” economy, that is, it weathers downturns better, it leads rather than lags in recovery, and it emerges stronger than before.

Regardless, there are several important issues that we should keep in mind, now that we do not have to worry primarily about survival any longer. These are on our important list. Here are some of the entries: the inflation rate, the effect of technology (artificial intelligence, robotics), California losing businesses and people to neighboring states, resilience, etc. Let me focus on resilience here.

One year later what have we learned and what do we have to do to create a more resilient economy?

First, no one who has lived through the events of the last 16 months should ever again take for granted that global pandemics, natural disasters and cyber-attacks focused on our infrastructure are impossible. Employers in the public and private sectors, and we as individuals, need to continue to focus on disaster preparedness, because in the future, we will be challenged again.

Second, Southern California and Inland Empire leaders need to focus on diversifying our region’s economy. Because of the critical role our logistics sector played during the pandemic our overall unemployment and economic recovery were less severe and quicker than that of Los Angeles County. Yet, sub-regions like the Coachella and Temecula valleys suffered greater employment disruption because of their reliance on the leisure and hospitality industries.

COVID-19 forced the adoption of work at home technologies. The ripple effect has been that many employers are reimagining what their office needs and the locations of where those offices are going to be. In line with Governor Gavin Newsom’s focus on having jobs where people live, regional leaders should actively be dialoguing with those companies that are looking for a smaller office footprint and to provide a better quality of life for their employees by reducing daily commutes. The majority of commuters out of the region are our white collar workers headed to job centers in the coastal areas, primarily the Greater Los Angeles area.  An opportunity to change that exists right now.

Third, focused effort needs to be made to change the systemic issues that have existed within our region for far too long. Supporting the cross sector and inclusive initiatives like Growing Inland Achievement, focused on growing the number of students receiving baccalaureate degrees and the Inland Growth and Opportunity, focused on creating promising jobs for those without a four-year degree through new collaborations and an emphasis on growing industry clusters around promising job sectors to secure pathways to upward economic mobility.

Finally, as we emerge from the pandemic and economic downturn we need targeted investment and smart policy from our federal and state elected leadership. Literally billions of dollars are beginning to flow to counties and cities throughout the country. There needs to be a focus on triaging sectors of the economy that continue to suffer the effects of the pandemic.

Long term true resiliency is going to require large investments in broadband infrastructure, minority owned businesses and empowerment, truly dealing with healthcare disparities, and preparing our workforce with the skills that will be needed to compete in the age of robotics, drones, virtual and augmented reality.

Albert Einstein’s definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results seem appropriate to any discussion about building a more resilient economy. We are living through a world-wide pandemic that has killed millions of our brothers and sisters and disrupted the economies of the world. Certainly, that should make us want to do things differently when we discuss building back our economy. As Sheryl Sandberg has said, “To fight for change we need to build resilience today.”

The Inland Empire Economic Partnership’s mission is to help create a regional voice for business and quality of life in Riverside and San Bernardino counties. Its membership includes organizations in the private and public sector.