Next 20 Years Portend Economic Evolution

September 22, 2003
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Twenty years ago demographers and analysts were noting the dramatic shifts in the diversity of the country’s population, the graying of America, portending changes in health care and forecasting a dramatic shift from a manufacturing economy to one dominated by the service sector in the Information Age. Personal computers were rare and the Internet was not even a note in a sci-fi story.

This particular issue of the Business Journal rather dramatically encompasses the latest news of those “forecasts,” and an accounting of how each unfolded in the Grand Rapids metro area. Most notable are the stories in the Focus section, which reports in depth on the vast array of competition facing area businesses not just across town, but also around the world. The report on the creation of new assistant secretary for manufacturing and services, proposed by President Bush Sept. 1, is a move that U.S. Reps. Vernon Ehlers, R-Grand Rapids, and Peter Hoekstra, R-Holland, have advocated, though Ehlers backs pending legislation to create an undersecretary position in the Department of Commerce.

The office would be dedicated to the interests of manufacturing and developing policies that promote expansion of the sector and addressing those that adversely affect it. Ehlers noted, “It’s an idea whose time has come 30 years ago.” Ehlers said. Indeed, it may be too little, and too late. The manufacturing sector has lost 2.7 million jobs since 2000 in the struggle against growing global competition, and the evolution is only dawning.

Technology moved past the proliferation of the personal computer, encompassing “teller”/ATMs; pulled design concepts off the boards into computerized programs at manufacturing, engineering and architectural firms and applied the “hands-on” work of manufacturing employees to hands on robotic arms.

Twenty years ago a woman could not get a business loan without a husband’s signature (see the story in Section C), and Merrill Lynch executive Eileen DeVries couldn’t even get a tee time at Cascade Country Club until “after hours.”

Dozens of minority businesses have operated successfully in Grand Rapids (the oldest existing minority business is Brown’s Funeral Home, established in 1924) but were rarely in the pictures of business leadership 20 years ago. Their profiles have proliferated on the pages of the Business Journal as entrepreneurs, CEOs, managers and community leaders.

This business community has grown substantially, from 14,029 business establishments with employees in Kent and Ottawa counties in 1983 to 27,790 in 2003. The average hourly manufacturing wage in 1983, was $9.96, compared to $16.39 in 2003.

The Van Andel Institute was not an idea in 1983, nor were the possibilities offered by the human genome. The transition of health care from treating disease to predicting it is the most awesome accomplishment of this time, or any time.

Some of the economic landscape of this community is very apparently changing, and creation of the VAI, for example, is but the tip of the iceberg of the “service sector,” the new economy and changes to come.

Grand Rapids Business Journal looks forward to the unfolding story of the coming 20 years with great curiosity and excitement. Only our readers know how far this business community can grow.    

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