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SWOT Analysis:  An in-depth analysis of regional strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats

A SWOT analysis of the regional economy should answer the question, “Where are we now?” by using the relevant data (see above) and background information to help identify the critical internal and external factors that speak to the region’s unique assets and competitive positioning.  The SWOT is a strategic planning tool used by organizations to ensure that there is a clear objective informed by a comprehensive understanding of a region’s capabilities and capacity.  A SWOT analysis identifies the region’s competitive advantages—those indigenous assets that make the region special or competitive in the national and global economies—juxtaposed against those internal or external factors that can keep a region from realizing its potential.  Determining and analyzing what the region already possesses that could be leveraged better to build the capacity for growth, including competitive cultural, economic, technological, intellectual and physical assets, is critical to developing the strategic direction and implementation plan to promote regional economic vitality.  Leveraging assets refers to using the activities and engagement of business, government leaders and other stakeholders to maximize the economic potential of a region.

In addition, the SWOT analysis should consider economic resiliency.  Specifically, what factors and/or elements are in place (or need to be put in place) to ensure the long-term success, viability, and durability of the regional economy?

Recommended Resource: See NADO’s 2011 report Mobilize Maine: Asset-Based Regional Economic Development (PDF) at http://www.knowyourregion.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/09/NADO_MM_FINALlores.pdf (PDF) for an example of an asset-based strategy.

SWOT analysis elements are commonly understood in the following terms:

  • Strengths are a region’s relative competitive advantages (e.g., industry supply chains and clusters, extensive port, rail, and broadband assets, specialized workforce skills, higher education levels, collaboration among stakeholders) and often are internal in nature;
  • Weaknesses are a region’s relative competitive disadvantages (e.g., a risk-averse or change-resistant regional culture), also often internal in nature;
  • Opportunities are chances or occasions for regional improvement or progress (e.g., expansion of a biosciences research lab in the region), often external in nature; and
  • Threats are chances or occasions for negative impacts on the region or regional decline (e.g., several companies in the region considering moving to lower-cost areas of the state), also often are external in nature.

Recommended Resources: The SWOT should assess a wide-variety of regional attributes and dynamics.  Specific areas and potential tools to facilitate their analysis are identified below:

  • State of the regional economy.  What are the strengths and weaknesses? What are the strong existing and growth sectors? Which areas are most distressed? What is driving job creation or loss and the state of economy in general?  What are the region’s assets? See the Regional Innovation Accelerator Network (RIAN) at http://www.regionalinnovation.org/assets.cfm for more information on identifying and measuring asset categories (i.e., tangible, intangible, and business climate assets).
  • Regional clusters.  Which clusters, and industries and occupations within the cluster, are growing and declining, and why? EDA defines clusters as a geographic concentration of firms, workers and industries that do business with each other and have common needs for talent, technology, and infrastructure. See the U.S. Cluster Mapping Tool (http://www.clustermapping.us/) for more information on clusters and the promotion of clusters.
  • External trends and forces.  What are the opportunities and threats? How is the region positioned to succeed in the national and global economies?  What sources of exports and tourism, as well as foreign direct investment, can bring new wealth to the region? What industry sectors and clusters have growth potential through international trade and investment, and what are the region’s target foreign markets based on these industries? What local public, private and nonprofit partnerships have been developed to promote exports and increase the region’s export base? What are the strategic needs or gaps to fully implement an export promotion and investment attraction program (e.g., foreign outreach events, marketing materials, and research; and regional transportation infrastructure or regulatory issues)?

    Helpful resources for information on global competitiveness and positioning include the U.S. Department of Commerce’s International Trade Administration’s (ITA) program for investment attraction, SelectUSA (http://www.SelectUSA.gov), and local export promotion contacts, U.S. Export Assistance Centers/U.S. Commercial Service (http://export.gov/eac/index.asp). The following web resources also provide useful tools for analyzing a region’s export trends: a) the U.S. Census Bureau’s USA Trade Online (https://usatrade.census.gov/) provides monthly and annual trade statistics for goods at the district and port level, as well as state exports and imports; b) ITA develops state-level (http://www.trade.gov/mas/ian/statereports/index.asp) and metropolitan statistical area-level factsheets (http://www.trade.gov/mas/ian/Metroreport/index.asp) and TradeStats Express state (http://tse.export.gov/TSE/TSEhome.aspx) and metro (http://tse.export.gov/metro/SelectReports.aspx?DATA=Metro) databases with information on exported products, the number of exporting companies by state, and jobs supported by exports by state.
  • Workforce considerations. Are the region’s community colleges, workforce boards, economic development agencies, and industry groups aligned and working together?  Is the region’s workforce strategy aligned (and not in conflict) with the workforce strategy of local elected officials, the Workforce Investment Board, and education providers?  Is there active engagement by leading businesses, industry associations, and labor organizations in such activities as developing training curriculum, or providing work-based learning opportunities?  Are training programs informed by employers’ skill needs, labor market and career information, and do the programs have clearly understood outcomes with demonstrable job and career results?  Are there occupations or workforce skills that are critically important to the region’s economic growth strategy, and if so, how can they be leveraged as competitive assets?  What short and long-term human resource challenges exist for the local economy along the region’s proposed development path?

    Does the workforce strategy include education and training programs that are part of a continuum of education and training that leads to good jobs, increased earnings, and career advancement as evidenced by career pathways and industry-recognized, stackable credentials?  Are work-based learning opportunities such as on-the-job training, paid internships, job shadowing, and registered apprenticeships provided?  Are there program evaluations and an approach to continuous improvement associated with workforce development?  Has the local or regional Workforce Investment Board been engaged in the development and/or review of the CEDS? Helpful resources include the Administration’s Job-Driven Training Checklist (http://www.whitehouse.gov/sites/default/files/docs/skills_report.pdf (PDF)) and the Bureau of Labor Statistics (http://bls.gov/) website, including the BLS Occupation Outlook Handbook (http://www.bls.gov/ooh/).

    The following web resources also provide useful information for workforce considerations: (a) state and local workforce contacts can be found at www.servicelocator.org by searching for Workforce Investment Boards under the “Workforce Systems Contacts” link; (b) state labor market information can be found at www.careerinfonet.org by clicking on the “State Information” link; and (c) state occupational projections can be searched at www.projectionscentral.com. Another useful site is STATS America’s Occupation Cluster section of the Innovation Data Browser (http://statsamerica.org/innovation/anydata/index.asp?T1). Also, for a good example of a workforce strategy in a CEDS, see the Centralina Economic Development Commission’s latest document (http://www.centralinaedc.org/documents/WorkforceEducationAlignmentReport12-6.pdf (PDF)).
  • Institutions of Higher Education/HBCUs. What institutions of higher education exist in the region? What resources are available within those institutions that can support regional resilience and economic development? Does the region have any EDA-funded University Centers and, if so, what services are provided by those institutions that can be leveraged? Are there Minority Serving Institutions (MSIs), such as Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), that can assist in the planning process with resources related to economic development decision-making, workforce development and training, entrepreneurial and innovation efforts, and research and business assistance? How can these institutions help in the planning process, including assisting with data and analytics? Are there existing relationships between these institutions and other economic development partners in the region that can be strengthened to further support regional economic development objectives?

    EDA-funded University Centers are focused on using university assets to build regional economic ecosystems that support innovation and high-growth entrepreneurship, resiliency, and inclusiveness. Specifically, they provide expertise and technical assistance to develop, implement, and support regional strategies. Expertise and technical assistance can be focused on workforce training programs, applied research centers, technology commercialization, feasibility studies, market research and data analysis, and economic impact analyses training among many other types of activities. The following web resources provide some examples of ways in which University Centers have supported regional economic development goals: (a) EDA’s University Center Program webpage (https://www.eda.gov/programs/university-centers/), (b) NCGrowth, a University Center at UNC-Chapel Hill, helps businesses and communities create jobs and equitable opportunities through applied research and technical assistance (https://ncgrowth.unc.edu/index.php/what-we-do/), and (c) Purdue Center for Regional Development, a University Center at Purdue University, develops and improves online data tools, produces regional economic profiles and other informational resources, engages key stakeholders in mapping regional assets and opportunities, and strengthens regional collaboration and innovation networks (https://www.pcrd.purdue.edu/signature-programs/eda-university-center.php).

    HBCUs invest strategically in institutions and individuals at the local level to actively pursue innovation and entrepreneurship that can help more Americans improve their connectivity to and productivity within the 21st century. HBCUs have made significant contributions to the general welfare and prosperity of the United States while producing many leaders in business, government, academia, and the military. The most visible example of EDA’s ongoing partnership with the HBCU community consists of those that have been designated as EDA University Centers (https://www.eda.gov/programs/university-centers/hbcu/).

    HBCUs working with local ecosystems and communities can build processes by which innovators, students, current and prospective employees and employers, and entrepreneurs can better develop and launch solutions to solve real-world problems and maximize real-world opportunities. Today, there are 101 accredited HBCUs, public and private, concentrated in 19 states, the District of Columbia and the U.S. Virgin Islands. The economic returns produced by HBCUs are particularly evident at the state level, generating billions in total economic impact and thousands of jobs for their local and regional economies (https://uncf.org/programs/hbcu-impact). Across the states and territories where HBCUs are located, they annually provide an average of 6,385 jobs in each state and generate an average of $704.7 million in total economic impact (https://uncf.org/pages/hbcus-punching-above-their-weight).

    Of the many contributions that HBCUs make to the communities and regions in which they operate, one of the most compelling is workforce development. HBCUs often leverage specialized degree programs and students to support local business needs – including the increasing number of companies looking to diversify their workforces. Local economies are positioned to succeed in the global economy by possessing a highly trained, technically skilled workforce, and HBCUs generate talent that regularly feeds these local ecosystems. In particular, HBCUs have implemented proven practices to assist students in STEM (i.e., science, technology, engineering and mathematics) fields to obtain significant professional experiences, research opportunities, and mentorships. It is estimated that the United States will need nearly 1 million STEM professionals in the next few years, and HBCUs are leading the charge by producing 27% of African American students with bachelor's degrees in STEM fields. In addition, 21 of the top 50 institutions for educating African American graduates who go on to receive their doctorates in science, math, and engineering, are HBCUs (https://www.edi.nih.gov/blog/communities/top-10-stem-historically-black-colleges-and-universities).

    Current examples of workforce-focused partnerships between regional planning organizations and HBCUs include a collaboration between Triangle J Council of Governments (TJCOG) and North Carolina Central University to research law enforcement recruitment, training gaps, and potential candidates in the region and provide departments with data-driven recommendations to improve their local recruitment efforts. For more information, see https://www.tjcog.org/partnerships/regional-recruitment-partnership. In addition, the Gulf Coast Economic Development District (GCEDD) partnered with Prairie View A&M University to establish the Rural Workforce Academy that provides skilled trades training certification and job placement to rural counties impacted by disasters. For more information, check out https://www.pvamu.edu/cahs/rural-workforce-academy/.

    In addition to workforce-related collaborations between EDDs and institutions of higher education/HBCUs, there are other ways certain EDDs have acknowledged and leveraged these institutions as key regional assets and contributors to a regional planning process that is innovative, competitive and inclusive of all interests who stand to benefit from strong local economies . EDDs that include university/HBCU administrators on their CEDS Strategy Committees and/or EDD boards are benefiting from the local insights and community knowledge that these institutions bring to the planning process for economic development capacity building (see the Piedmont Triad Regional Council at https://www.ptrc.org/services/economic-development and the Capital Region Planning Commission at https://crpcla.org/economic-development).
  • Spatial efficiencies/sustainability.  How can land use, housing, economic development, transportation, and infrastructure planning be better integrated to support regional prosperity? Are there opportunities to redevelop brownfields and vacant industrial space? Can the region’s workforce easily access the jobs and housing options in the area? (see the Partnership for Sustainable Communities at http://www.sustainablecommunities.gov/ for more information on the important linkages between land use, housing, transportation, and the environment in promoting economic competitiveness; and see this report on the economic benefits of livability at http://www.smartgrowthamerica.org/documents/building-better-budgets.pdf (PDF).   Also, see EPA’s Smart Location Database for a useful tool comprised of interactive maps and data for measuring spatial efficiency at http://www.epa.gov/smartgrowth/smartlocationdatabase.htm).
  • Broadband needs.  Do communities, institutions and businesses agree as to the broadband and telecommunications needs of the region? Has the region discussed ways to leverage strong broadband infrastructure to support business retention and expansion, as well as its applicability to health, education, public safety, energy and civic life? The National Telecommunications and Information Administration’s (NTIA) resources on broadband mapping, planning, adoption and implementation can be found at www.ntia.doc.gov/broadbandusa (see NTIA’s www.broadbandmap.gov for information about current availability; also, check with the state economic development office to find out whether your state has data on underlying infrastructure or more granular broadband availability/use data).
  • Energy needs.  Are the energy needs of the region – and the importance of reliable energy security – understood?  Have the methods of production, transmission, and distribution been analyzed in relation to regional economic development efforts (e.g., utility siting)?  In particular, have opportunities for distributed and advanced energy been considered and addressed?  Have utility companies been consulted and included in discussions about economic resilience and overall regional development?  Have future energy needs been considered and planned for in light of changes in demand and climate? For information on Smart Grid see http://energy.gov/oe/articles/economic-impact-recovery-act-investments-smart-grid-report-now-available.
  • Natural hazards.  Does regional hazard mitigation planning take into account future as well as current risk from events such as droughts, floods, storm surges, and wildfires?  Does the region’s climate adaptation and hazard mitigation planning integrate land use and workforce planning to ensure a resilient and prosperous region under the effects of climate change?  How might climate change impact flood risk, water supply, wildfire risk, sea levels and storm surges, extreme heat, extreme precipitation, and other extreme weather events into the future?

    Helpful resources include the National Association of Development Organization’s report, “Resilient Regions: Integrating Economic Development Strategies, Sustainability Principles and Hazard Mitigation Planning,” available at http://www.nado.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/07/NADOResilientReport.pdf (PDF).  For information on future climate conditions, resources include the National Climate Assessment (http://nca2014.globalchange.gov/ ) and regional climatologies (http://scenarios.globalchange.gov/regions).
  • Equitable development.  Is there active engagement from the region’s vulnerable and/or underserved populations (e.g., low-income families, seniors, ethnic minorities)?  Have those populations been provided appropriate access to and inclusion in the planning process and has their input into the final product been actively encouraged? Has the region used technology-based tools to widen the distribution of information and increase the potential of feedback from residents?
  • Partners for economic development.  Who are the influential actors in the region? These may include organizations, businesses, or individuals that represent important issues, including those that may be less familiar to the economic development organization such as social service delivery and natural resource organizations.
  • Resources for economic development.  What relevant groups, organizations or individuals are located in the region? Who – including other federal agencies beyond EDA – can provide support and funding to build capacity for economic development activities?  How can the CEDS leverage federal, state, and private sector funding resources in pursuit of its economic development objectives?

Also, for an example of a relevant SWOT section of a strategy, see http://arcreativealliance.com/resources/Southeast+Arkansas+Growth+Initiative+-+Regional+Plan+for+Economic+Development+-+Draft.pdf. (PDF)

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