After a couple of difficult decades, there are signs that Connecticut’s economic outlook is improving. 

It’s critical that the winners of the upcoming gubernatorial and legislative elections collaborate together to build on that momentum by launching a new, ambitious phase of the state’s economic strategy – one focused on winning the competition for next generation talent, technology, and jobs.

Three factors make this the right moment to launch this economic strategy through large-scale, innovation partnerships between universities and industry.

William Guenther

First, Covid-era hybrid/remote work is a game changer determining what it takes for states and regions to compete.  For decades, the competition has been about attracting employers, but now more than ever it’s about a “people strategy” – winning the competition to attract and develop the best talent to drive innovation, especially in clusters of expertise that will act as a magnet for more talent.

In an era when remote work allows many of the most talented people to live anywhere and access far off job markets, quality of life in communities, good schools and a reasonable cost of living are more important than ever in attracting and retaining talent.  That’s good news for Connecticut which has seen recent gains in new residents.

Second, the increasing awareness of the risks of technology competition from China is leading global tech firms to “on shore” sensitive research and development and supply chain operations, which are looking for locations and talent.

And third, after years of flat federal research funding – and in part driven by China’s competitive threat – billions of dollars of new federal R&D funds have been committed to energy, climate, healthcare and life sciences development.  The success of Operation Warp Speed in getting COVID vaccines to market in record time has spurred the government to design some new life sciences programs to get funding out the door more quickly and with fewer strings attached.

Significant amounts of this new money will flow through universities and teaching hospitals. A disproportionate amount of the funds will go to the states and regions that organize to compete for grants at large scale through partnerships between universities and industry. And state match funds create advantage in federal grant competitions.

The good news is that Connecticut is well positioned to compete with a talent and technology strategy.  The state has made great strides following the agenda set by the 2018 Commission on Fiscal Stability and Economic Growth.  Yale has continued to develop major new research facilities, particularly in life sciences, and UConn has moved up the national rankings for research funding.

But more can be done. The difference between doing better and winning will be determined by a vision for what success looks like – and an ambitious strategy organized with industry, university and state leadership.

A strategy requires focus – you can’t win at everything.  A careful analysis of Connecticut’s talent and technology assets, known as a technology roadmap, would help identify the areas aligned with the new federal funding opportunities where the state has the potential to be a national leader.

State government’s role is to convene leaders, develop the roadmap with private sector and university partners, and create incentives for technologies and sectors that hold the promise of delivering jobs and equitable economic opportunity for all Connecticut residents.  It’s about identifying areas of strength and building on those, not picking firms that are winners and losers in the marketplace.

Developing a technology roadmap for Connecticut begins with asking several basic questions to drive the strategy and collaborations:

  • What is our vision for success? What are targeted opportunities to be a national leader in talent and technology?
  • Where do these opportunities align best with major federal and private sector R&D funding?
  • What new university-industry partnerships can we organize to win funding for nationally important “centers of excellence” that will make Connecticut a magnet for talent and jobs?

Finally, two other questions are important to develop and attract the talent the state will need to prosper.  What more can we do to invest in our own people by significantly improving public schools and colleges? Do we have a promotional strategy to recruit top talent to the state, both American and foreign?

Connecticut has no shortage of strengths.  Launching a talent and technology-based economic development strategy focuses on those strengths and will help usher in a future marked by economic growth, good jobs and expanding opportunity.

William Guenther is a founding officer of Connecticut Compact, a new nonprofit initiative committed to building consensus on the state’s most pressing challenges and opportunities, focused on economic strategy, climate change and election reforms.