Labor Dept. snub leads to real innovation

February 13, 2006


Chicago lost a bid for a $15 million, three-year grant from the U.S. Department of Labor to study regional work force innovation and economic growth.

The bid was a collaborative effort led by Jack Lavin, director of the Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity; Paul O'Connor, executive director of World Business Chicago, and Jerry Roper, president of the Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce.

Says a disappointed but undaunted Roper, "We deserved to win because this region is so valuable to the Midwest and the nation."

North central Indiana won. So did western and central Michigan, northeast Pennsylvania, central and eastern Montana, Denver, Kansas City and the Florida Panhandle. Even California won, but Chicago lost.

Thirteen grants worth $195 million were allocated by Labor Secretary Elaine Chao under the WIRED (Workforce Innovation in Regional Economic Development) Initiative. The program aims to help regional economies plan and "partner together and leverage their assets and resources to develop a more highly skilled workforce that can act as the lynchpin to attract new economic development and employers," according to a Labor Department press release.

It's part of the "competitiveness agenda" President Bush presented in his State of the Union address. The Council on Competitiveness, a group comprised of CEOs, university presidents and heads of labor organizations, acted as an adviser to the Labor Department.

You might think Chicago's migration from metal bending to the knowledge economy makes us a natural to win a grant. We're the capital city of the Midwest. Think again. Chicago lost. Chicago has huge political muscle. It's not clear if we flexed it to win. We have the speaker of the House, two prominent senators, an influential governor and the nation's top Democratic mayor. But we lost the grant.

Is it a big deal? You bet. Future job opportunities will come from the innovation economy. In today's hotly competitive global marketplace, we must be aggressive if we're going to succeed.

Says Council on Competitiveness President Deborah Wince-Smith, "Regional prosperity depends on a region's capacity to support innovative firms, institutions and people."

Roper and Lance Pressl, president of the Chicagoland Chamber Foundation, aren't giving up. They want to work with the Council on Competitiveness and plan Chicago's future without the Labor Department grant. They're seeking funding from the commercial sector and from the Chicago Community Trust to launch a scaled-down effort.

"We've created a program called Innovate Now," says Pressl, who hopes to convene 80 business and community leaders in March to gauge the region's innovation and competitiveness.

Pressl wants to "conduct a formal innovation assessment with the Council on Competitiveness between March and September." He hopes that will lead to Chicago serving as a host city for one of four planned Council on Competitiveness Regional Summits.

"Regions are the battlegrounds for turning our nation into an innovation economy," Pressl says. He thinks it makes good sense that Chicago should be at the vanguard of the battle for American competitiveness.

"We've picked ourselves up from this loss and agreed to continue our efforts," Roper says.

Bits & Bytes

The Illinois Technology Development Alliance hosts its Monday morning meeting today at the ITEC-Evanston, focusing on homeland security technologies.

Investing in open-source tech companies will be the topic Tuesday when the Illinois Venture Capital Association and the Illinois Information Technology Association convene at the UBS Conference Center. Presenters include: Duchossois Technology partner Dan Phelps, Univa Vice President Vas Vasiliadis, SpringCM CEO Christine Mason, IBM Software consultant Lee Bliss and ShopperTrak CTO Craig Mohan.

Ellen Barry, Society for Information Management president and Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority CIO, hosts MIT senior research scientist Andrew Lippman for a talk on Viral Innovation and Communications at Wednesday's luncheon at Spiaggia. Watch for Lippman to describe how the new "hundred-dollar laptop" will close the digital divide.

CDW CEO John Edwardson keynotes the University of Chicago Graduate School of Business alumni entrepreneurship conference Thursday at the Gleacher Center. The program showcases successful entrepreneurs trained at the U. of C.

Michael Krauss is a Chicago area tech writer and consultant.


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