Over the last two decades, Linda Fowler has dealt with regional development from almost every angle. She’s spent time in private industry (as a project engineer for General Motors), worked 12 years for the Department of Commerce, and focused on workforce development at different levels.
Fowler is also Founder and President of Regionerate, a Washington, D.C.-based consulting service dedicated to regional collaboration and economic development. Over the past year, EMSI has worked on several projects with Fowler, including a workforce and competency analysis for the Regional Workforce Alliance of Greater Milwaukee.
Fowler recently sat down with us to talk about Regionerate, helping communities grow, and developing meaningful partnerships.
EMSI: Let’s start with your background. When did you start Regionerate?
Linda Fowler: I started Regionerate about a year ago. I was leaving the federal government where I had worked for 12 years for the Department of Commerce, and two of those years at the Department of Labor. While I was I was working with WIRED regions — regions around the country that were funded by government to support regional innovation hotspots — one of those WIRED regions asked me if I would work with them to help with a sustainability plan. So I did that, and I also continued to work with Department of Labor on a set of reemployment and reengagement strategies. And that took me to a lot of regions around the country that were struggling, especially with dislocation — major employers letting go lots of employees, especially in the Midwest.
And what I began to realize when I was working in these regions was that a lot of them had done some type of study in the past, a cluster analysis or industry analysis. Often it was sitting on a shelf because it wasn’t updated. Sometimes it may have been more recent. But what they didn’t have was the ability to make investment strategies and regional economic development strategies based on real-time labor market data.
So I think as a result of talking to some folks at EMSI and looking at a series of papers you had published on green jobs and what are the implications for regions when they think about how to invest for green jobs, I began to realize that there was a really good fit between what I was trying to do, which was help regions develop business plans based on some new and emerging opportunities and linking their assets to those new and emerging opportunities largely by leveraging these open source networks. [Fowler was introduced to EMSI by one of her partners, Ed Morrison of the Purdue Center for Regional Development and Institute for Open Networks.]
So the partnership with EMSI developed when we actually began to do a competency analysis in the Greater Milwaukee area, which is a WIRED region, where I’ve done work before. And our first project together was helping that region understand, given their high-growth industries that they had already identified, what were some of the specific gaps in the occupational competencies that they were looking at developing.
EMSI: What are some other opportunities out there by striking a partnership with EMSI?
LF: I can tell you what I think is a real opportunity for EMSI and Regionerate is auto-community recovery [areas affected by the auto manufacturing downturn]. I’ve been pulled into discussions with auto community colleges and I’ve been asked to support a network of auto community colleges that are looking at sharing best practices, building curricula, thinking about opportunities for new policies.
I think there’s also an opportunity to really do deeper dives as people narrow their focus to look at the data that can make a real difference to decide, for example, whether to invest in industries that are growing or industries that aren’t growing as much but have potential for much higher wages. And helping to facilitate that discussion with education, workforce development, economic developers, the continuum of education providers is key. It’s really being able to help them with the complex decision-making.
It’s a nuance that people can’t always grasp because they don’t have the right information. And it’s not accessible in a way that EMSI has been able to represent it — in a way that’s very accessible to a lot of decision-makers and policymakers.
EMSI: How does your work differ from what other consultants are doing?
LF: I try to help regions access and navigate the flow of federal assets and understand how they can apply for and be eligible for some of that funding to help them implement that regional plan. And I try to help the federal government understand what the specific needs of the regions are.
I’m acting in many ways as a liaison and I’m supporting the regions for the most part, although I’m also supporting these stakeholder groups that are key to regional growth, such as community colleges, community foundations, universities, industry associations, manufacturing extension centers. They’re all part of the landscape and groups that I’m actually supporting. So I enter in through various doors, but when I enter into a community or region, I try very hard to make sure everyone is at the table that should be at the table and to think about how to develop networks and planning organizations that can bring networks together if they’re not currently working together. So a lot of what I do is focused on that regional collaboration/partnership development. Those are means, and the end is the growth of the region and the competitiveness of the region.
EMSI: Working with all these different stakeholders, is it a challenge to develop a common language? That seems to be one thing we discovered during a few recent projects.
LF: They are speaking different languages, so there is a translation process that goes on. And I have worked in industry, I’ve worked in economic development, and I’ve worked in workforce development, so I’ve actually had a foot in a lot of those camps, which I think helps me. But I think the other thing that’s really valuable to them is that I have experimented a lot in the field. We tried different things in different regions, and there’s no one, cookie-cutter approach. But there are some things that tend to be efficient and effective and distinctive practices.
So to the extent that I can bring lessons learned from one region to another as I work across region. Knowledge sharing, a knowledge spillover — I think that’s very valuable. And I think that’s what EMSI brings to the table too because they’re working across the country as well at different sites. And as they’re learning things with each intervention, there’s what I would call an innovation and knowledge spillover that occurs as we move from community to community.
EMSI: You mentioned carrying practices over from one region to the next. Any examples?
LF: I think a good example is Milwaukee, where they’ve formed a water cluster that is essentially bringing people together to benefit creating this hub for freshwater science. The way they’ve done that is they’ve looked at how they can integrate the needs of industry back into the K-12 system.
In the postsecondary system they’re looking at forming an advanced technology education center, a community college for freshwater science. They have a new grad program they set up. So they’re getting to look at all the different ways to bring stakeholders together to support this initiative. And I think the work that EMSI and Regionerate did in that region was just to help them take that to the next level. They were already beginning to focus on the integration of education and economic development and workforce development toward this industry cluster around water.
For more information, contact Linda at firstname.lastname@example.org or call EMSI at 208.883.3500.