Reading the news reports this week of President Obama’s Asian tour, especially his visit to China and discussions with its leadership, I could not but reflect on my own trip last month as an invited participant in the China International Education Forum. The invitation had been extended from the Chinese organizers of the forum because they had heard through US channels of the StayWorkPlay initiative here in New Hampshire. StayWorkPlay, the recently-established non-profit organization arising from the “55% Initiative,” (launched by the University System of New Hampshire in association with partners across the state) attracted their interest precisely because of its aggressive focus on the retention of youth, or even more specifically, its concern to keep talented, innovative, and entrepreneurial young people here in New Hampshire.
I will not soon forget sitting along among a vast audience of Chinese educational leaders listening, via translation, to a retiring Chinese Government and Communist Party leader describe, with unheard of frankness, China’s economic strengths and weaknesses. China has numbers, resources, space, and favorable business policies, but what it needs much more of, he stressed, is creativity, new ideas and designs whether for goods or services. China’s educational sector does not yet cultivate the type of risk-taking and innovative thinking that so characterizes other leading countries, especially the United States. A failure to re-focus their efforts on fostering such innovative thinkers, he said, would forever relegate China’s workers to ‘making cheap goods for the rest of the world.’ His candor, prompted me to reflect, notwithstanding the vast difference in scale, on some of the differences between China and my own home state. I came away more convinced than before that there is a New Hampshire Advantage and that it is more than our tax structure , the natural beauty of our state, or its consistently high place on the livability rankings. What gives us a distinct leg up is the high value we assign innovation, creativity, and entrepreneurship
Reflecting on the trip, there are really two themes that, I believe, have special relevance to our workforce development efforts. The first is that China, even if it is not the world’s largest economy, is, at this moment in time, the world’s economic center of gravity (the tone and nature of Obama’s trip to China only emphasizes this point). The growth of China’s economy, as evidenced by the giant office towers, its horrendous pollution, and its frantic pace of development that I saw on my trip, is certainly leading the world out of the ‘Great Recession’ (which, it is important to note, China never really experienced). The Chinese megalopolis, not the one on our East Coast, is now the destination of new, unexploited opportunity. Knowing Mandarin, not English, is the new comparative advantage among those coming into their economic own. Understanding these facts, even if they are sour to the taste, is crucial because only by appreciating their truth can we effectively hone our strategy and focus our efforts. An economic development strategy that looks to Boston, but not to Beijing, as our economic competitor (and collaborator) is myopic in the extreme.
The second theme is that New Hampshirites’ independent, entrepreneurial spirit and our culture of Yankee ingenuity and innovation are the New Hampshire Advantage that we must guard (and nourish) if we hope to expand prosperity in this century as we did in the last. We must expand our efforts educate New Hampshire’s emerging commercial actors on the importance of commercializing ideas, starting their own businesses and bringing new goods and services to the global market. We must continue to foster commercial inventiveness by sustaining an environment that incentives, even glorifies, experimentalism and tolerates, without great punishment, bad ideas and failures. We must understand that the cheapness of labor in China (and another countries) and the acceptance of environmental degradation by Chinese citizens allow for cost-of-production savings that we are powerless compete with if we desire to sustain our quality of life. If we are to compete in this new Sino-Centric global economy, we must develop our strategies and implement our efforts in ways that demonstrate, to ourselves and to the world, that the true New Hampshire Advantage is, at its core, much more than just a business friendly tax environment. Rather, the New Hampshire Advantage’s essential characteristic must be that our State possesses a dynamic workforce filled with generations of employees that can innovate and compete on the global stage.
It is not hyperbole to say that the work of StayWorkPlay on building this workforce is of primary importance to building and maintaining this New Hampshire Advantage, and thus to our way of life.