A conversation with 4 U.S. governors on the 21st-century economy

April 27, 2015

photo of governors panelAt the 2015 Milken Global Conference, two Republican governors and two Democratic governors, all of them with private-sector experience, shared their triumphs and challenges at a panel titled “Building a 21st-Century Economy.”

Each of the four men agreed that education was key to closing his state’s skills gap between the thousands of unfilled jobs and the workers who lack the training to perform them. North Carolina’s Pat McCrory, a Republican, put it best when he said if his state doesn’t find the mechanics, electricians, IT personnel and accountants that today’s job market needs, it won’t remain competitive. He’s emphasizing market-based training to match workers with the skills they’ll need not only today, but for jobs 20 to 30 years down the road.

Which particular industries are ripe for the greatest growth vary by state. For Virginia, given its proximity to Washington, D.C., the biggest opportunities are in cybersecurity and bioscience, said its Democratic governor, Terry McAuliffe. Pete Ricketts, Republican governor of Nebraska, said strong growth in agriculture was responsible for giving his state the lowest unemployment rate in the country. He sees further expansion in this sector if certain international tariffs come down.

Colorado’s John Hickenlooper, a Democrat, said his state was focusing more on advanced manufacturing and robotics in an effort to become the Silicon Valley of agriculture, acknowledging that Lincoln, Neb., was stiff competition in that field. He also said Colorado is focusing on making itself more attractive to young entrepreneurs, who aren’t as tied down as in the past. Denver, he noted, is the No. 1 destination for millennials, with more live music venues than Austin or Nashville.

McCrory recognized the power of youth as well. To attract them, he said North Carolina is offering free in-state tuition to all veterans coming home from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, even if they aren’t originally from the state.

Moderator Ronald Brownstein, editorial director for Atlantic Media, asked whether the increasing divergence in state laws was good for the laboratory of democracy or harmful to a more perfect union. All four governors stressed the importance of their relationships with one another.

“The competition of ideas drives everybody to be better,” said Nebraska’s Ricketts. “I’m a big believer in stealing other people’s good ideas.” Hickenlooper, his neighbor to the west, agreed, saying that “there’s a real division of belief on certain core issues.” But he added that governors generally work together on these issues. As an example, he said that he and Gary Herbert, his Republican counterpart in Utah, agree on about 90 percent of issues and spend a lot of time listening to each other in search of solutions to the remaining 10 percent.

The four panelists also concurred that government on all levels can benefit from having more people with business backgrounds. “It’s not that people don’t want government,” said Ricketts. “They want government that works. If you’ve managed a large organization, you can bring those private-sector skills to making government work.”