Dean Barber

Sink or Swim: Preparing for Climate Change

In Corporate Site Selection and Economic Development on October 15, 2018 at 11:43 am

It was April 1, 1981 and I was a reporter for The Columbus Enquirer, in Columbus, Ga. I was told to go to Hurtsboro, Ala., about 30 miles away, where a major tornado had touched down.

When I got there, I was awestruck by the devastation. Walking around destroyed homes and businesses in the center part of the small town, I remember thinking “this looks like a war zone.”

Two people died that day and 23 were injured. About 300 of the town’s 800 people were left homeless. But it was not my first brush with the destructive power of nature. That happened when I was in high school in Lebanon, Pa. with Hurricane Agnes, which made landfall in Florida on June 19, 1972.

The storm caused some of the worst flooding ever in the mid-Atlantic and is responsible for 122 deaths, of which 48 occurred in Pennsylvania. Agnes was called “the “worst natural disaster in the history of the state,” with 68,000 homes and 3,000 businesses destroyed. South Lebanon Township, where I lived, was particularly hard hit, although my home was spared.

Fast forward to this past week, Hurricane Michael strengthened unexpectedly overnight before hitting Northwest Florida on Wednesday. It was strongest hurricane to strike the United States since Andrew in 1992 and the strongest on record in the Florida Panhandle, a region that I know and where I have friends.

One of them, an economic developer, sent me an email Friday.  “This is when people pull together and show what they are truly made of. Northwest Floridians take care of one another, and this time will be no different!”

Live, Learn and Plan

I absolutely believe in the resiliency of people, especially during and after natural disasters. People come together and pull together. We’ve seen that virtually everywhere in this country.

And as people put their lives back together, they also put their homes and businesses back together with a vow to rebuild. Many economic developers have come to realize, that in the wake of tragedy, economic activity results. (As a result of Hurricane Agnes, I had a summer job rebuilding concrete sidewalks and curbs that had been washed away.)

Not only is there a resulting new construction, replacing what was lost with newer, often improved structures, but sometimes there is also a community reset. Let’s do it right this time. Let’s plan for a better future.

So we live, learn and plan. Building codes are improved, green spaces are expanded. It’s as if the slate has been wiped clean, allowing for new possibilities, a new face for the community to emerge.

In the wake of natural disasters, Americans have a long history of coming together to rebuild and rebuild better, to which local, state and federal government can and have taken a prominent role to ensure.

But I wonder if that is enough. It seems there are bigger forces at work here.

The UN Sounds the Alarm

Two days before Hurricane Michael made landfall at Mexico Beach, Fla., with 155 mph winds, the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change published a report that the world’s temperatures could escalate to catastrophic levels by 2040 and trigger a $54 trillion global economic loss.

These effects include extreme heatwaves, severe droughts, and sea-level rise, which is my primary focus here. Estimates of global average sea level rise vary, but it is becoming increasingly clear that it poses a major risk to coastal populations, economies, infrastructure and ecosystems around the world.

Since the dawn of civilization, people have lived in near coasts for reasons of subsistence (fishing) and logistics (trade and transport). Add to that recreation and cultural activities. Indeed, most of the world’s megacities are in coastal areas.

In the lower 48 states, counties directly on the shoreline constitute less than 10 percent of the total land mass, but 39 percent of the total population. From 1970 to 2010, the population of these counties increased by almost 40 percent and are projected to increase by an additional 10 million people or 8 percent by 2020.

In a nutshell, it means more people are at risk.

An Ominous Uptick

There is mounting evidence that climate changes influences major weather events which have become frequent and severe. Last year, damages from extreme weather hit $306 billion in the U.S. alone.

Climate change unfolds over decades and over very large regions. While it may not have “caused” a huge storm in the strictest sense, it has created a more favorable environment for these storms to take place. It has set the table.

In 2017, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) found that more than a quarter of coastal locations tied or set new records and that coastal flooding is expected to be 60 percent higher in 2018 than it was just over 20 years ago.

In its National Climate report published in May, NOAA said, “As relative sea level increases, it no longer takes a strong storm or a hurricane to cause coastal high tide flooding. High tide flooding causes frequent road closures, overwhelmed storm drains, and compromised infrastructure.”

In short, the worst is yet to come, and not just for people living in coastal areas but inland as well.

Rethinking Where and How to Build

All this should put the onus on government and businesses to be prepared for similar events in the future.

“Human settlements have been designed in a way that reflects a climate of the past, and this increases the likelihood that disaster-related losses will continue to rise,” said Gavin Smith, director of the Department of Homeland Security’s Coastal Resilience Center of Excellence in an interview with The New York Times.

“This also means we need to rethink how and where we build before the storm, as well as how and where we reconstruct public buildings and infrastructure in the aftermath of extreme events.”

But are we? Are we irresponsibly allowing development to take place in places where it should not be allowed now that we are better armed with the facts?

Last year, President Trump rescinded an executive order that required consideration of climate science in the design of federally funded projects. In some cases, it meant mandatory elevation of buildings in flood-prone areas. Earlier this year, FEMA released a strategic plan that stripped away previous mentions of climate change and sea-level rise.

When the North Carolina Resources Commission predicted a 39-inch sea level rise by the year 2100, the Legislature in 2012 summarily rejected the finding.

“The new Legislature … thought this report would kill off tourists and kill our coastal economies and convinced them to throw it in the trash, which they did,” said Stanley Riggs, a former professor of marine and coastal geography, in an interview with The Christian Science Monitor.

Stephen Colbert, in a segment on “The Colbert Report,” rightly made fun of the state lawmakers, saying they had two options, “sink or swim.”

“If your science gives you a result you don’t like, pass a law saying the result is illegal. Problem solved,” Colbert said.

Riggs worked on the original Commission Report in 2010 and on a later version requested by the Legislature. The later report looked 30 years ahead instead of 90, warning legislators the state needed to prepare for up to a 6-inch sea level rise.

When the Facts Change

When we learn of communities that are experiencing 500 and 1,000-year “rain events” in back to back years, maybe that should tell us something. Maybe climate change is not a communist plot but something that we can do something about. At the very least, we can try to adapt in order to save lives and property.

Now I know the knee-jerk reaction that global warming creates among some people. I was once in that camp. While I conceded that climate change might be happening, there was no way to determine its exact influence on weather events, and I refused to acknowledge that climate change might be partly human caused.

I no longer believe that. The preponderance of the evidence suggests otherwise. British economist John Kenneth Galbraith said, “Faced with the choice between changing one’s mind and proving that there is no need to do so, almost everyone gets busy on the proof.”

That is probably human nature. But when the facts change, when new information comes to light, when science persuades me that I am wrong, well, I will change my mind. What do you do?

I’ll see you down the road.

Dean Barber is the principal of Barber Business Advisors. BBA helps communities become better places for business and companies find better places for doing business. Visit us at


There is a Future for Work

In Corporate Site Selection and Economic Development on September 23, 2018 at 2:23 pm

Probably the worst speech that I ever gave was on a topic that most people would find interesting and important. And yet I managed to make it unappealing and boring. Trust me, it took work on my part.

About a year ago, I was invited to speak to a group of economic developers associated with the Greater Oklahoma City Chamber, which includes 10 counties in the metro area. Jeff Seymour, now executive vice president of economic development with the Chamber, and I decided beforehand that I should speak on the future of work.

How I could muff a speech on one of the hottest topics facing us today — how technologies like automation, robotics, and artificial intelligence are shaping how we work, where we work, and the skills we need to work – made me realize that presentation is every bit as important as content.

A Flat Failure

Mind you, I had good content, but my presentation (simply reading text that I had composed) was sorely lacking. I realized halfway through the speech that I was not connecting with my audience, but I still had to plunge ahead. Afterward, I told Jeff, “Well, that went over like a dead cat.”

It’s interesting to note that Abraham Lincoln felt that his Gettysburg Address was a complete flop. It is now viewed as one of the most poignant, powerful, and inspirational words ever spoken by a president.

Upon sitting down after giving his speech, detecting the muted, polite applause, Lincoln turned to his friend Ward Hill Lamon and said, “Lamon, that speech won’t scour. It is a flat failure.”

Save Sinners Quickly

Looking back on my Oklahoma City effort, I now realize how right Mark Twain was when he said, “Few sinners are saved after the first twenty minutes of a sermon.” In short, it you don’t grab your audience’s attention in the first minute or two, you’re sunk.

Somehow, I managed to make a fascinating subject a snoozer by droning on and on about possible scenarios on the future of work that could play out in the next 20 years, each reflecting whether there will be more or less work, and whether work will exist in the form of jobs or fragmented into tasks or “gigs.”

People do not want to hear that it may be this or it may be that. They want a degree of certainty. They want answers. And while I do not always have all the answers, in keeping with the tradition of consulting, I should imply as much.

Something You Don’t Hear Often

This might come as a bit of a shock, but I have changed my mind. How often do you hear that from a politician or a consultant?

When I first started pondering, writing and speaking on the future of work, my views were consistently dark. While I never believed that robots would ultimately kill us all, ala The Terminator, I wondered aloud in front of audiences about the role and relevancy of people in the future. What will we do when the machines will be able do it all for us?

Two books by MIT professors Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee, left deep impressions upon me.

The first, Race Against the Machine: How the Digital Revolution Is Accelerating Innovation, Driving Productivity, and Irreversibly Transforming Employment and the Economy, confirmed what most of us sensed was happening – that we are in the midst of a technological revolution that is radically redefining the word of work.

We see businesses increasingly substituting “smart” machines for people, and with the rapid pace of advancement of digital technologies, we wonder if anyone can keep up.

In their follow-up book, The Second Machine AgeBrynjolfsson and McAfee wrote about the amount of digital information being created and how relatively cheap devices are continually talking to each other and doing things once considered possible only in the realm of science fiction.

Will We Be Needed?

Robots can now scan and identify all the objects in a strange room, allowing them to perform a series of complex physical tasks. Computers can not only read and grade essays, they can write them. The thought of all this frankly scared me. Would there be any work left for us to do in the future? Would people be needed for anything?

My fears were in keeping with that of British economist John Maynard Keynes, who coined the term “technological unemployment” back in the 1930s. Keyes predicted that the displacement of workers by machines would usher in an era of shorter work weeks and increased leisure.

But I have since changed my mind. I no longer believe that advances in digital technologies will reduce the overall demand for labor. I now believe that new technologies will simply shift demands to different kinds of work. Yes, certain jobs will go by the wayside, but new ones will be created, as they always have.

Two reports out this past week confirm as much – that technology will create more jobs than it destroys.

An Industry Evolves

The first report is industry specific. According to data compiled by Bloomberg, of the 13 publicly traded automakers with at least 100,000 workers at the end of their most-recent fiscal year, 11 had more employees compared with year-end 2013.

The automakers had a combined 3.1 million employees or 11% more than four years earlier. Keep in mind that industrial robots have made their biggest mark in the automotive industry, and yet companies continue to hire people in research and development.

As the industry evolves, more people are being hired for software positions than hardware roles to prepare for a future in which more vehicles are communicating with each other and their surroundings.

More Created Than Eliminated

The second report originates with the World Economic Forum, which holds that technological advances in the workplace stands to create almost double the number of jobs for the global economy by the middle of the next decade than it puts at risk of being replaced.

According to the WEF, about 133 million jobs globally could be created with the help of rapid technological advances in the workplace over the next decade, compared with 75 million that could be displaced.

The WEF report confirms what many economists and researchers have been saying — that new technologies have the capacity to both disrupt (destroy) and create new ways of working, similar to previous periods of economic history such as the Industrial Revolution.

Back then, the advent of steam power, electricity, and the internal combustion engine, helped spur the creation of new jobs and the development of the middle class. The the rise of artificial intelligence in the workplace will follow along the same vein.

It means the robots will not be killing us while we lounge around the pool sipping Mai Tais. It means there is a future of work. I hope that makes you feel better.

One More Thing

I will be speaking on the benefits of site certification this coming Thursday, Sept. 27, in a free webinar at 11 a.m. CDT hosted by my friends at the Golden Shovel Agency. I should warn you that I will delve into soil borings, which is pretty racy stuff.

I’ll see you down the road.

Dean Barber is the principal of Barber Business Advisors, an economic development and corporate location consulting firm based in Dallas. Visit BBA at to learn more. Follow Dean on Twitter @DeanWBarber

What Shop Class Did for Me

In Corporate Site Selection and Economic Development on August 14, 2018 at 12:47 pm

Among us boys, Wilhelm Wolfskill gained immediate cult-hero status with a single utterance.

“Willie,” as we called him behind his back, was our “shop class” teacher at South Lebanon Middle School in Lebanon, Pa. I’m guessing the year was 1968 or 1969, and I was in either in seventh or eighth grade.

Willie was showing us the proper way to use a mallet and chisel, and we were gathered around him when he said something in his heavy German accent that will remain with me for the rest of my life.

“Ach du Lieber, who let der schmelly von?” (Translation: Good heavens, who farted?)

Even my father cracked up when he heard that.

In addition to that memorable quote, I have something else that has remained with me from Willie’s shop class – a small, wooden foot bench that I made 50 years ago. It’s not much to look at, then or now.

But it meant a lot to me then to a 13-year-old boy who was much confused about the world. And it means a lot to me today as a 63-year-old man who still gets much confused on occasion. It’s why I have kept it.

Goggles and Aprons

Back then, shops class was formally known as “industrial arts,” and it was mandatory for all boys. (There were no girls in class.) I remember the goggles and the dark blue aprons that we had to wear and how the loud shrieking table saw absolutely terrified me.

I imagined losing control of a piece of wood while guiding it through the circular saw blade and the board snapping back and smashing into my face. I was much more relaxed with a handsaw.

If memory serves me right, my first shop class was strictly woodworking, but I remember being introduced to welding in school (no aptitude there), so I may have had a second shop class along the way. Mind you, this was middle school, before high school.

There was a degree of self-satisfaction in making my simple little foot bench. More importantly, shop class gave me the opportunity to figure out for myself that I was not nearly as mechanically inclined as my father, who was a metallurgical engineer. That realization would help me later make career choices.

Other classmates built things that made my little foot bench look like child’s play. They, too, probably made career choices, at least partially influenced by what they learned about themselves and their abilities in shop class. In that regard, shop class served us all well.

Finding the Good and the Bad

Today in my role as a consultant to economic development organizations and companies, it pleases me greatly when I come across communities that have established robust vocational education and training programs, both at the high school level and in local community colleges.

In my book, that’s always a good thing because it ensures a pipeline of talent for local employer, but it also usually indicates a willingness of educators and local employers to work together.

Likewise, I have been to communities where there is a profound lack of effort or resources devoted to what educators now call “career technical education” or CTE. It may have once been offered, but all such efforts have been seriously eroded or abandoned.

Not long ago, I was in town that had a community college, but all the industrial trades were taught at a sister campus in another town 80 miles away. Lucky kids living there.

Then there was that community college offering courses in aircraft maintenance, which was fine except that there was virtually no aviation presence in the community. The nearest commercial airport was more than 100 miles away.

The head economic developer in another community once told me that he had never had a sit-down meeting with the president of the local community college, that they in fact had no working relationship and barely knew each other.

I can remember a plant manager of metal fabrication plant, one of the largest employers in this town, telling me that while he thought the local high school was offering some fairly good vocational training, the community college was offering none. The exception was cosmetology. There were classes being offered in that.

“They are of no help to us. None whatsoever,” the plant manager said.

Recently, I was in a city with a population of 100,000, where there was no community college at all. I thought that was particularly noteworthy, because the city had a long legacy of manufacturing, a sector that still resonates within the local economy.

Incredibly, that same city had four four-year colleges. When I asked about vocational education, the answers were vague and none too encouraging.

A Caste System in the Making

Even as a kid, I could detect a caste system in place. There was the “academic” path for those of us who aspired to go onto college. It’s what our parents and guidance counselors told us we should do.

Then there was the vocational pathway, which we in the academic track derisively referred to as “vo-tech.” The implication was that vo-tech kids were not smart enough to go to college. They had to go to work.

Of course, it was a stupid and wrong way of thinking, but it was indoctrinated into us. I believe that line of thinking is still pervasive today, although many would deny it. (I resisted somewhat, working in a grey-iron foundry for a year after high school before going to college.)

Looking back, I suspect that many of the vo-tech boys actually had a pretty good idea what they wanted to do. They wanted to be machinists, carpenters, electricians, plumbers and such — whereas most of us on the academic track had not a clue.

My own career path became clear after reading “All the President’s Men” in 1974. Written by Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, two reporters at The Washington Post who investigated the first Watergate break-in and ensuing scandal, the book cemented the idea that I would pursue a career in journalism.

As it turned out, journalism school at the University of Wisconsin was largely vocational in nature, which was a good thing. And there were no screaming circular saws.

These Other Capabilities

Baby Boomers with sophisticated machine skills, people of my age, are now retiring in droves. At the same time, many parents, teachers and guidance counselors continue to discourage young people from pursuing careers in the industrial trades, just as they did when I was a boy.

Over the years, we have created an education system where the emphasis is largely on improving standardized test scores and getting students ready for four-year colleges, while building actual job skills is given short shrift. When you think about it, we are so dependent of the people who make and repair and drive and do the sometimes dirty jobs that we cannot or will not do.

“The work of electricians, builders, plumbers, chefs, paramedics, carpenters, mechanics, engineers, security staff, and all the rest is absolutely vital to the quality of each of our lives,” wrote Ken Robinson, Ph.D, wrote in his book “Creative Schools, The Element, Finding Your Element and Out of Our Minds.”

 “Yet the demands of academic testing mean that schools often aren’t able to focus on these other capabilities.”

The No. 1 Business Problem Today

Manufacturers have been telling us for some time now that our schools are not turning out enough graduates with the math and science proficiency necessary to operate and repair computer-controlled factory equipment. It’s about time we listen.

While there are some indications that CTE may finally be gaining new life (last month President Donald Trump signed an executive order aimed at improving vocational education and job training), one of the most important business stories of 2018 is the difficulty that employers are having in finding qualified employees to fill a record 6.7 million job openings.

“Business’ number one problem is finding qualified workers. At the current pace of job growth, if sustained, this problem is set to get much worse,” Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody’s Analytics, said in a statement. “These labor shortages will only intensify across all industries and company sizes.”

It Takes Two to Tango

The only way that I see for us to meet this problem head on is through creating partnerships between business and education. Mind you, that is far easier said than done. That’s because educators and business people, particularly manufacturers, tend to speak past each other in different tribal languages.

For a meaningful partnership to happen, companies must assess their human resources needs in terms of numbers and what skill sets they want future employees to have and communicate that information to educators. It may also entail employers donating equipment, personnel and money to get vocational training programs at schools off the ground.

For their part, educators need to listen, ask questions and truly be responsive in trying to determine the needs of the companies. It may also entail schools hiring additional personnel with backgrounds in the trades to do the teaching.

The point is that if both sides talk, listen and do their respective agreed-upon parts, then real partnerships can be formed. It just takes two to tango.

And the truth is that I have seen this beautiful dance in multiple places. Northwest Georgia is just one example. The Georgia Northwestern Technical College, serving nine counties from six campuses, offers credit and noncredit programs designed to meet the needs of individual companies and consortia of companies with similar needs.

The school seeks out these partnerships. It’s a lovely dance when it happens and it can happen in more places if we only try to make it so. Where there is a will, there is a way.

I’ll see you down the road.

Dean Barber is the principal of Barber Business Advisors, LLC, an economic development and corporate location consulting firm based in Dallas. Dean is available as a keynote speaker and can be reached at Visit us at to learn more.