This simple phrase was repeated often and in many forms during a presentation made by Doug Hooker, executive director of the Atlanta Regional Commission, during the Cobb Chamber of Commerce’s First Monday breakfast event.
More than 325 people attended the breakfast at the Cobb Galleria Centre to listen to Hooker describe the plans his organization has for the economic future of metro Atlanta, a future he said Cobb County will play a large part in.
The ARC is an intergovernmental agency between the city of Atlanta and the 10 counties surrounding it: Cherokee, Clayton, Cobb, DeKalb, Douglas, Fayette, Fulton, Gwinnett, Henry and Rockdale. The organization works with county and city governments in these counties — as well as their universities, chambers of commerce, civic organizations and economic development authorities — to encourage economic growth for the overall region.
“We want to get companies to look toward the region first, and then we can compete internally for where they actually land,” Hooker said. “But the thing is, we want to be able to beat out Houston or Denver or someplace else (and get) the company to think about the Atlanta region first.”
Hooker would like to see Cobb County take on more of a leadership role in the region because it has been so successful over recent years.
“I think Cobb leadership being more engaged with regional activities in a leadership role so they can share their stories, share some of their success — and share some of the failures, too, because we learn by that … as well.”
Cobb Board of Commissioners Chairman Tim Lee, one of Cobb’s representatives on the ARC’s board along with Kennesaw Mayor Mark Mathews, concurred with Hooker’s assessment.
“I couldn’t agree with him more. Cobb has … a very significant economic impact (on) the region, and we need to assume the responsibility that brings with it by being a leader in policies for the region,” Lee said. “We also make our staff available, not only to the ARC as they implement policy and programs, but we also make our staff available to other jurisdictions. So I think you’ll see us continue to grow.”
According to Hooker, the metro region produces 68 percent of the state’s GDP, representing $294 billion in economic activity. Within the region, Cobb County generates about 14 percent of its GDP, Hooker said. Only Fulton County contributes more. The county also contains about 15 percent of all the region’s jobs.
“But at the same time, you need the region, because 60 percent of your employed residents work outside the county,” Hooker said. “So you attract a lot of jobs, and a lot of people come from outside of Cobb County to work here, but most of your employed residents leave the county to earn their living.”
Hooker said the ARC is implementing a “Regional Economic Competiveness Strategy,” consisting of 56 objectives split into four overarching topics: creating an educated workforce, encouraging innovative entrepreneurs, building livable communities and helping businesses prosper.
One of Cobb’s strengths, Hooker said, is in education. In Cobb, fewer than 9 percent of residents lack high school diplomas; in the metro Atlanta region, 30 percent of residents lack a high school diploma. Additionally, Hooker said, 44 percent of Cobb residents have a bachelor’s degree or higher, compared to the region average of 35 percent.
Lee praised the county’s teachers and administrators.
“I think it has to do with a very strong school system at the teacher level … with support of administrators (making) sure we produce the best possible educated student we can. It can also be attributed to the strong involvement of the business community and the opportunities that present (themselves) for continuing (education) through Southern Poly(technic State University), Kennesaw State (University), Life (University) and Chattahoochee Technical College,” Lee said.
Hooker also praised the county’s school system, but said there is a disconnect between employers and graduates regarding the skills they learn in school and the skills they need on the job.
“First of all, Cobb does a really good job of graduating kids out of high school, which we all need to do a lot better job of,” Hooker said. “But one of the things that is a problem in the Atlanta economic market is the misalignment between employers’ needs in terms of skill set and the skills that kids have coming out of high school and college. A lot of our young people … are graduating without a discernable skill set that an employer can use, and that’s creating a mismatch. During the depth of the recession in Atlanta, we had three and a half job openings for every unemployed person in the region and one and half openings for every unemployed person that had a bachelor’s degree.”
To solve this issue, Hooker said the ARC is working with officials from public schools, universities, technical colleges and businesses throughout the region so students learn the skills they need to be successful in the job market.
“We’re trying to get the school superintendents — and the boards, but especially superintendents — working with the businesses to think about how we can begin to integrate some of the skill things into the curriculum levels as low as middle schools and high school,” Hooker said.