01 Sep 2013

Beantown as a Beacon

US Competitiveness Project highlights the Hub's exportable ideas
Re: Mitch Weiss (MBA 2004); Gerald Chertavian (MBA 1992)


While the US economy is showing signs of recovery, don't pop the champagne just yet, say HBS professors Jan Rivkin and Michael Porter. Onstage at Spangler Auditorium in May, the pair laid out the deeper challenges the nation still faces: labor force participation that is at a 30-year low, stagnating middle-class wages, and a political system seemingly incapable of agreement. "So what happened—and what are we going to do about it?" asked Porter.

These questions were the impetus behind HBS's US Competitiveness Project, launched in March 2012 to determine how business could help boost America's performance in the global economy. The May event was part of a series of city-specific "Paths Forward" programs held across the country that brought together expert panels to weigh in on how the national business environment can be improved at a local level—and perhaps replicated elsewhere.

Here are a few Boston-born ideas highlighted by the event's panelists that appear ready for export.

Attacking poverty and a national labor shortage

While serving as a Big Brother, Internet entrepreneur Gerald Chertavian (MBA 1992) saw how many young, disadvantaged, yet motivated workers were stranded below the job ladder. In 2000, he founded Year Up, which offers low-income young adults a yearlong program of corporate training, mentorship, internships, and real jobs. Based in Boston, Year Up has now spread to nine other American cities, serving some 1,900 trainees annually. "Thirty percent of US jobs are 'middle-skill' jobs," Chertavian said, many of which go unfilled for lack of qualified workers. "With 6.4 million young people between 16 and 24 jobless and out of school, we're working to close this opportunity divide."

Facilitating private-sector progress while benefiting the taxpayers

"Governments need to think more like partners, not order-givers," said Massachusetts Secretary of Housing and Economic Development Greg Bialecki. "Government can play an important role as a convener and facilitator." He cited the state's role in encouraging and joining Massachusetts's five largest academic institutions—Harvard included—in building a super-computing center used to research everything from chromosomes to the climate. The project was completed at the end of 2012, with taxpayers footing only 10 percent of the bill.

Online learning tailored to the skills gap of the unemployed

Boston is an education mecca, but with the emergence of online education and MOOCs (massive open online courses), every city can boost its education efforts. BostonX, a first-of-its-kind project—founded in partnership with Harvard and MIT—brings free online middle skill-boosting and job-training courses to Boston's community centers, libraries, and high schools. As Boston Mayor Tom Menino's chief of staff Mitch Weiss (MBA 2004) noted, "Competitiveness is all about education. With online education, you can focus on what people in your community need to learn, while making it affordable for many who otherwise couldn't pay."


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