A regional perspective makes sense for Lake County economy

Lake County is not only part of the State of Illinois but also the Great Lakes region, and that dimension becomes steadily more important economically and therefore politically as well.

As one dramatic example, the largest employer in Kenosha — just across the Illinois-Wisconsin border — is Abbott Laboratories. That reflects the size and scope of the Lake County corporate facility.

The example is especially striking, but also representative of the much wider regional trend. Both Southeast Wisconsin and Northeast Illinois are integral to the Chicago metropolitan area. While the long-term decline of traditional manufacturing employment has created hardships for many residents, there are substantial and growing employment and investment opportunities in regional transportation, storage and related industries.

Chicago is the fifth largest container port in the entire world. The others at the top of this list are all major Pacific ports in Asia: Hong Kong, Singapore, Shanghai and Tianjin in China.

Our Great Lakes region does have indirect Atlantic Ocean access through the St. Lawrence Seaway, but the great bulk of shipping moves through the Chicago metro area via rail and truck, plus some air freight. Modern containers make possible efficient intermodal movement that employs various means of transporting a single shipment.

More than half the entire interstate truck traffic of the United States moves along the I-80, I-90/94 and I-294 highways and associated arteries. While the severe recession slowed the tempo, volume has remained consistently enormous.

Several years ago, Paul O’Connor, executive director of World Business Chicago, served as the keynote speaker at the Kenosha County Economic Summit. This major conference was organized by the Clausen Center for World Business at Carthage College in cooperation with our county government and others, regional business and professional communities, and the wider public.

In a presentation rich with concrete data, he noted that nearly 20 percent of truck maintenance jobs in our region are generally unfilled. This remained generally true even during the recession. These jobs today require specific computer skills — simple mechanical ability and a solid work ethic are no longer sufficient by themselves.

O’Connor also emphasized the importance of railroad passenger as well as freight traffic in terms of both our region’s influence and areas of employment growth. An ambitious effort spurred by influential business sectors to expand commuter rail from Chicago on to Milwaukee has been on hold for several years.

At the same time, passenger rail traffic continues to expand, reflecting in part the desires and needs of an aging population. The growth of freight railroad traffic in our region is self-evident, especially to motorists with opportunities for reflection while stopped at highway train crossings.

This translates into employment growth, especially long-term. While computer and related technical skills are required for many maintenance and transport jobs, a college degree is not. The pensions of railroad workers are underwritten by the federal government.

A regional approach is encouraged by the fiscal challenges faced by states during the recession. Indiana as well as Wisconsin — though not Illinois — have recovered fiscal strength. Sensible regional initiatives could be especially beneficial for Illinois.

Regional development generally has not been an American approach. This reflects our federal system, with emphasis on individual states as the next tier after the national government. There are important exceptions, however, including in particular the Tennessee Valley Authority.

Transportation and other concerns today encourage regional approaches. Lake and Kenosha counties is a good place to start.

Arthur I. Cyr is Clausen Distinguished Professor at Carthage College. Contact him at acyr@carthage.edu.

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