By Tim Giuliani
It’s hard to imagine how drastically COVID-19 has impacted our daily lives, our businesses, our economy and the health of so many in our community in such a short amount of time.
Just four months ago, which now seems like a lifetime, the Orlando Economic Partnership was focused on innovation and economic development, talent, health, affordable housing and transportation. Those topics dominated the headlines in our region and demanded our time and attention because they spoke to our mission of advancing broad-based prosperity.
Today, we are appropriately and imminently focused on recovering from the pandemic and the immediate health and economic needs of our community. But all those issues I just mentioned haven’t gone away. In fact, right under our noses, as we follow every COVID-19 development, our challenges have accelerated — along with our opportunities.
And that means we must adapt.
To do that, the Partnership has done several things to ensure we are hyper-focused on helping our local businesses survive and recover. In the short-term, our staff pivoted, as did countless organizations across the Orlando region. We reassigned staff. We stood up an online resource center and curated guidance and insight from our elected leaders, law firms and accounting firms. We conducted surveys and economic analysis. We stood up programs to address the needs of our community and continue to this day to provide resources and tools, as well as information, to the businesses in our region.
Now we’re accelerating.
We were focused on innovation because a region must continually foster and reinvent its core strength, which in our case is tourism and hospitality, while also investing in the diversity of industry and emerging technology. Doubling down on this full mix of industry is what the prescription was and remains going forward. New companies, new jobs and new opportunities come when industry sectors collide, investment is made in startups, and companies large and small partner.
We must also be aggressive in identifying and capitalizing on a new world order as it emerges. Will the new COVID-19 economy see companies move manufacturing back from China? Will our state and federal governments change policy to foster more investment in America by American companies? Will foreign and global companies look to safer and stronger economies like the U.S.? Will this experience have some in megacities look to midsized regions like Orlando for a safe and more stable quality of life?
We must stay connected to decision-makers and take advantage of any changes that improve our competitiveness. Now is not the time to retreat on our aggressive economic development outreach.
As larger companies move forward, we need to proactively connect them with scaling companies that can meet their needs while creating a win-win for both companies and the job needs of the community. We must also tell our region’s story of innovation to avail our startups of the resources and opportunities within and outside Central Florida.
Any strong business is always looking at what is emerging and making investments in the future. Similarly, our region must find new ways to advance what is emerging through investments and collaboration. We must allow the creativity and innovation to flourish in new and powerful ways.
On the talent front, four months ago, we knew that a third of the workforce would have to be retrained or upskilled by the year 2030. The pandemic likely accelerated that timeframe. In a report released recently by nonprofit public policy research organization the Brookings Institution, Orlando ranked as the No.2 metro community (behind Las Vegas) that will be the hardest hit by the COVID-19 pandemic, with approximately 27% of our population at risk for being displaced.
The travel, leisure and hospitality industries are expected to suffer the most. Let’s not miss the opportunity in the crisis to double down on the strategy to expand upskilling opportunities.
The labor force has been severely disrupted, and people are looking for new opportunities. We can capitalize on this moment to improve our region’s economic resiliency, create new career pathways and have our labor force drive new economic development opportunities. Having more people with more skills is the surest way our region will grow wages and advance broad-based prosperity in the long term.
Impact on the Most Vulnerable
In the old-world order, our community leaders were looking at ways to tie the collaborative momentum in the region together with our amazing healthcare assets to create a renewed focus on the overall health of the community.
As data emerges about the coronavirus pandemic, we’re learning two very important lessons: 1) It impacts everybody, but hits those in a disadvantaged environment much harder, and 2) Those with underlying health conditions are hit the hardest.
The Partnership’s COVID-19 business impact surveys measured the ongoing challenges our business community is facing in response to the uncertain economic environment. Of the 214 Central Florida businesses surveyed, 87% indicated they have been negatively impacted by the global crisis, an increase of 13 percentage points from the first survey, largely due to lost and delayed sales.
Small businesses, those with two to 99 employees, account for roughly two-thirds of all employment in Orlando, making the strategy of small business response and support crucial for mitigating the impacts of this crisis. While restaurants, bars, event producers and other businesses felt the immediate consequences of necessary social distancing policies, national data is beginning to reveal a second wave of effects as service businesses such as lawyers, contractors, healthcare workers not fighting the virus, and others experience fewer projects and less work.
The surveys also dug into strategies companies plan to take for the remainder of 2020. Besides the expected high numbers of businesses that will implement new cleaning protocols (85%) or physically distanced seating arrangements (82%), 56% of respondents said they were likely to implement automated systems that would reduce face-to-face contact between employees and customers.
What is emerging is a better understanding of how we’re all connected in ways not fully appreciated before. This enlightened sense of self interest should drive a deeper and more significant effort to improve the health of our community. This will include collaborating with existing initiatives, adding to the portfolio and convening a multi-sector approach to improve the health indicators that underlie our economy.
Just four months ago, we were highlighting that rents have increased in Orlando more than anywhere else in the South in the past decade. We were also discussing the fact that only 13 affordable units exist for every 100 households needing them.
Job losses will only deepen the need.
The Orlando unemployment rate soared to 22.6% from April to May 2020, representing 300,700 unemployed persons in the labor force. For context, the U.S. reached an unemployment rate of 24.9% during the Great Depression. Orlando currently has the highest unemployment rate of any metropolitan area in Florida, followed by the neighboring Lakeland metropolitan statistical area (MSA) with a rate of 19.1%.
While no industry was left untouched by the pandemic and resulting shutdowns, continuing job losses are now mainly concentrated in just the leisure and hospitality industry. Every industry is below its pre-pandemic levels of employment, but some are beginning to see a slight uptick in employment, including retail, finance, business services, education and health, all of which saw increases ranging from 1,000 to almost 5,000 jobs.
Overall, May’s data reveals that reopening has brought some jobs back to the economy and the unemployment rate will begin to decrease when data is released for June. But these job gains are not nearly enough to offset the losses from events and tourism, continuing to highlight the importance of consumer confidence for recovery.
Even a quick economic recovery will only get us back to where we were, at best. While the answers don’t get easier, the need for a more robust effort has become clearer. This effort will require a renewed public-private approach that needs to be even more aggressive and creative than it was in the past.
Not even four months ago, our board adopted the Transportation 2030 Report that’s been in development for the past year. The need for investments in our network to provide more options for commuters, tourists, students, families and others still exists.
Diversity, Equity and Inclusion
In the midst of the pandemic, our nation and region arrived at an inflection point, one that is needed in order to address systemic racism and unconscious bias. The Partnership’s mission, to advance broad-based prosperity, is based on a vision to create a community where everyone can pursue health, happiness, financial security and success.
To further improve our economy and overall region as a more prosperous place, we must work together to create real solutions. We can’t move policies, initiatives and programs forward without addressing the underlying issues of race. Our first step is to bring our regional voices together to help us better understand a collective path forward with a bias for action.
As we reimagine our economy, we are keeping in mind that the trends and issues we were already focused on have accelerated. A united response will allow us to strengthen our economy in the mid-term, tell Orlando’s story during the recovery period, and empower fellow leaders to rebuild an even stronger region for the future.
We simply can’t afford to miss this opportunity to adapt and respond to the accelerating environment. We are committed, long-term, to being a part of our community’s solution.
Our actions will speak louder than words.
Tim Giuliani is the president and CEO of the Orlando Economic Partnership (www.orlando.org), a public-private, not-for-profit economic and community development organization. The Partnership represents seven Central Florida counties as well as the City of Orlando and hundreds of the region’s top private businesses.