Angie White: Opening our ears to the opportunities around us

One of the benefits of aging is that (hopefully) years of life experience have taught us to pause before reacting to news or a major event. We pause to take in the immediate and obvious impact of what has occurred, but also to try to read between the lines or think through what unexpected results might occur.  Since the COVID-19 pandemic first arrived on U.S. shores and turned our world upside down, I have found myself more and more often saying “Well, one opportunity that has arisen from the pandemic is . . .”

I do not want to seem to be making light of the extreme negative effects this pandemic has had on the health and well-being of hundreds of thousands of American citizens and companies, on our economy (local to global), and on most everyone’s sense of certainty about what the future holds. Indeed, as an economic developer with a focus on supporting the workforce needs of North Louisiana companies, I have been truly heartbroken to receive phone calls and emails from long-standing employers telling me they have had to lay off employees.

But it is the nature of most in my profession to be looking for the opportunities amidst the rubble.  Since Governor Edwards’ shelter-in-place order was first issued in mid-March 2020, the North Louisiana Economic Partnership has had the opportunity to deepen our relationships with the companies that drive our regional economy, initially through phone calls and emails to check-in and do some damage assessment, but more often now to explore ways to help them take advantage of opportunities to grow.

One thing I have enjoyed in the years I have spent visiting existing businesses in North Louisiana is learning about the market factors that drive their business.  In some cases, it is impacted by national residential or commercial construction trends, or it might be influenced most by consumer behavior (the move toward online sales). Other times, international political factors may play a large part, such as tariffs on the goods they produce or the supplies they are importing, or the opening of new international markets like the recent partial opening of Cuba’s economy for agricultural imports. In the case of the COVID-19 pandemic, massive disruptions to supply chains have placed a harsh light on how vulnerable these structures have made businesses (and economies) and many companies are rethinking how they do business.

Alongside the distressing calls and emails we have received of late have been a surprising number of calls from companies who have seen demand for their product or service increase over the last few months, due directly or indirectly to market demands caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. And they need resources and support to be able to respond to that demand.  Thankfully, many need workers to help meet their increased demand, and that creates opportunities for residents whose jobs were lost due to the pandemic. When we check in with companies, we are sure to ask if opportunities exist to attract parts of their supply chain or corporate product portfolio to North Louisiana to make their company more resilient.

Now more than ever we must stay laser focused on strengthening our partnerships with existing businesses, training and education providers (at all levels, high school to post-secondary), and the workforce development intermediaries in our region to enable collaborative networks dedicated to ensuring our companies and our people succeed, to be profitable and to support their families. In renewing our focus on the companies that are the base of the North Louisiana economy, of course we want to marshal all our resources to support them as they recover, but we must also keep our ears open to the opportunities.

Angie White is a certified economic developer and Interim President of the North Louisiana Economic Partnership, www.nlep.org.