Investing in Education: What Xerox and Kodak Can Teach Cities
The story of America is a story of continual reinvention. A nation of farms became a nation of industry became a nation of digital enterprise.
Yet not all reinvention is voluntary. After 115 years of operating independently, Xerox announced its agreement to combine with Fujifilm Holdings. The advent of digital file sharing and changing technology led to the slow decline of this former titan.
And they aren’t the only ones. Kodak continues to struggle for relevance, announcing KodakCoin, their entry into the increasingly crowded cryptocurrency market, only to catch sideways glances of curiosity from industry experts.
Xerox and Kodak teach a lesson that reaches far beyond the board room, one that their public-sector brethren would do well to note: Diversify or perish.
Indeed, they are textbook examples of a common paradox of success, in which gains in one area persuade leaders to increasingly narrow their efforts on what worked in the past. These companies monopolized their product lines and were relied on the world over for their specific expertise. Along the way, they neglected to learn, pivot, and prepare for the future. They made a big bet, and it paid off for a while, but eventually their inability to shift and respond to the current environment cost them — though Xerox’s $8.3 billion market value at the time of the announcement is nothing to whine about.
Across the United States, cities are in danger of following the example of Xerox and Kodak. The Gulf Coast, though known for its tourism, fishing and shipping, is also dotted with cities dependent on a workforce specially trained for the oil and gas industry and little else.
In the Upper Midwest, fracking and energy investments brought job growth in the tens of thousands. Even some smaller towns and suburbs resemble the infamous “monotowns” of the former USSR — communities dependent on a single company or industry, leaving residents ever-fearful of a corporate headquarters decamping to the big city.
A community that gambles on single-industry talent is making the same bet as Xerox, but without the safety net of an eventual corporate merger. Detroit, increasingly known as “America’s comeback city,” will have to reinvent itself — it can’t merge with Miami and become a beachfront nightlife destination.
The city of Tulsa is working with employers in IT, Professional Services, Manufacturing, and Logistics to provide incentives to learning after high school. The idea is to provide the kinds of supports and policies that adult learners need to balance life, learning and work. And as it helps those people, Tulsa is diversifying its workforce to stay competitive in the industry of tomorrow.
Cincinnati knows investing in parents means investing in their future: children. The data show that 57.3 percent of all children in the city under the age of 18 live in single female-headed households. For African American children under the age of 18, that percentage jumps to an alarming 73.4 percent.
In that community some say the answer is the Intergenerational Success Project, designed to give children the future they deserve and to ensure the city can continue to compete once those children come of age. The nonprofit, business, education, and government sectors are helping credential hundreds more single African-American female heads of household, allowing these parents to earn higher wages and break the cycle of poverty.
Subsidies and low corporate tax rates alone will not attract nor keep business. And even if a city is lucky enough to have a major employer in town, they should consider how long until a new disruption comes and ends a seemingly unmovable titan. Investing in adult learning after high school is the first, and perhaps the most important step, any community can make to secure a stable and diversified economic future.
Dakota Pawlicki focuses on Lumina Foundation’s Talent Pathways work, which is mobilizing communities and postsecondary institutions to make major gains in attainment.
Jesse O’Connell is a deputy director based at Lumina’s Washington, D.C. office, helping develop and support models of postsecondary finance as well as advance federal policy to increase the attainment of high-quality credentials.