OPINION: The Future of the Economy in St. Mary's

By Bob Schaller, Director of Economic Development, St. Mary's County

"How's the economy?" We're all asking this question to one extent or another. The message lately on the state of the economy has been a mixed one. On one hand, we're facing a financial industry crisis nationally that has broad and uncertain impacts. The economy will likely play a dominant role in the upcoming elections. Closer to home, news of local business closures and cutbacks add to the uneasiness. At the same time, some businesses are having their best year ever. Businesses feel the effects of changing consumer behavior and adjust plans and operations accordingly. Likewise, each of us as households absorb all this along with our individual employment and income situations, and adjust our behaviors accordingly. So we're all connected in some way through the system we call the economy. Depending on what you do in the economy will determine how much you are affected. Fortunately, St. Mary's County as a whole has done fairly well throughout the current economic times. This is largely due to our strong employment base. One thing to keep in mind is that business cycles come and go. The same set of circumstances that brought about the current situation will ultimately be corrected and lead to a turnaround. The key for every player in the economic system, whether it's a business owner, consumer, or government agency, is the ability and willingness to adapt to the changing environment. This is our everyday challenge.

Dealing with short-term economic challenges is first priority. But I'd also like to offer some encouraging news for longer-term prospects in St. Mary's County. In particular, the work that's been done to attract, retain, and develop a world-class workforce is being reflected in our changing demographics. The U.S. Census Bureau released demographic information based on its most recent annual survey from 2007. I'll briefly describe just three measures that relate to our workforce: educational attainment, median age, and commuting patterns.

In educational attainment, there's continued improvement nationally, statewide, and locally. Since 2000, the rate of improvement in St. Mary's County is greater than that of the state and nation. We now exceed the U.S. rate of Bachelor's Degree completion (27.8% vs 27.5%). In 2000 we lagged the national rate by almost 2%. St. Mary's County has also narrowed the gap with the state average over the same time period. The Maryland average was 35% in 2007 and ranked 2nd nationally. The growth of program offerings and enrollments at our local institutions of higher education including the College of Southern Maryland, St. Mary's College of Maryland, Southern Maryland Higher Education Center, and others has contributed to this progress. Future growth plans at all institutions will only narrow this gap further.

Improved high school graduation rates have also played a key role in preparing students for post-secondary education. St. Mary's County's High School Graduate completion rate exceeds both the state and nation. The organic progress we've seen in the local school system along with the partnerships developed with NAS Patuxent River and other employers and organizations will infuse even more graduates into the workforce pipeline.

In terms of median age, St. Mary's County repeats in 2007 with the youngest population in the state. At 34.4 years, St. Mary's median age is the lowest of all Maryland counties with populations of 65,000 or more. The growth of young professionals attracted here by employment opportunities and the growth of families are the key factors. A younger and more highly educated workforce is a great economic foundation for the future.

In commuting patterns, St. Mary's County continues to stand apart with only 29% of our labor force commuting out of the County to work. Compared with our neighboring counties of Charles and Calvert both at about 60% and the state at 46%, there's more time to enjoy the quality of life that surrounds us. With rising fuel and energy prices, this is an even greater factor in our favor. An increasingly homegrown workforce with the opportunity to live where they work is a tremendous asset.

So three basic ingredients - increased educational attainment, a young population, and a work where you live pattern - combine for long-term workforce and economic development opportunities. Back to the original question on the current state of the economy, it's not an easy one to answer. There's little question though that today's situation is different than it was even a year ago. Attention needs to be paid to the immediate economic issues at hand. But let's not forget that some of the fundamental and structural features of our economy which have been years (and decades) in the making will be there to make the economy even stronger when the current business cycle turns more favorable.

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