Future collaborations between global cities and the middle market: Key questions and smart moves

Q: According to the National Center for the Middle Market (NCMM), 41% of middle-market companies say their talent needs are different than those of small- and large-size firms. How can global cities tailor workforce development initiatives and policies to serve the needs of the middle market better?

A.  Theresa E. Mintle, president and CEO of the Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce, discusses two of the key ways in which the city of Chicago can improve conditions for the middle market.

Global cities, such as Chicago, need to be aware that middle-market companies are having trouble finding the right talent to drive growth. There are two solutions to focus on:

  1. Provide education and training programs that can develop talent at all levels of schooling to fit the needs of the middle market. Also, explore ways in which to upskill and reskill the existing workforce with the needs of the middle market in mind.
  2. Facilitate connecting existing qualified job seekers with middle-market jobs. There are workers in the market with the skills that middle-market companies need. But the right talent does not find the right middle-market jobs, or middle-market companies do not know how to reach this talent. Each city can do a better job to facilitate this connection. I see technology as a solution that can match workforce demand and supply with greater precision. We can upskill our tech platforms beyond the typical job postings.

Q:  Most middle-market firms are willing to seek outside help for international expansion efforts. However, there is inconsistency in how companies are accessing this help, especially at the local level. How should middle-market firms be looking at cities as a resource for trade support?

A:  Thomas A. Stewart, NCMM executive director, presents a few win-win scenarios for collaborations between global cities and the middle market.

Without cities there would be no trade, and vice versa — that’s a fact of history. Smart middle-market companies will make cities a key factor in their futures because cities can serve as mediators and connectors between the middle market and available public resources that the middle market can tap into. These public and public-private resources can help the middle market overcome common obstacles to trade, such as cost, navigating political and legal risks, and finding trade partners. Cities can even be partners in advocating for trade policies that the middle market supports, such the North American Free Trade Agreement and the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

Proactive middle-market companies will plan ahead for collaboration with cities, even before they go global for the first time or are going into a challenging new market. Their home cities can offer resources that can alleviate some of the cost of globalization capabilities. For example, most major metros have a full suite of representatives that can be excellent social directors, helping to connect middle-market companies to specialized expertise. Some examples are the U.S. Department of Commerce, federal government representatives, or business development organizations, which have become much more focused on the role of middle-market companies as job creators, exporters or attractive investment targets for inbound foreign direct investment.

Finally, global cities are full of other resources: service providers, universities, industry trade groups, logistics services companies and sources of financing, among others. They also present significant relationship-building opportunities with peers or customers. In addition, cities can also help middle-market companies overcome some underlying barriers to trade, like workforce and infrastructure gaps, or even aid in the development of innovative products that can compete on the global stage.

Q:  Digitization is a key factor in driving future growth. Yet, in recent NCMM research,  most middle-market firms rate their overall digitization efforts at a C+. What are some examples of ways in which global cities can support digitization or innovation efforts to help middle-market companies grow?

A:  Jim Brady, Grant Thornton’s COO, describes the unique profile of the middle market when it comes to digitization.

First, middle-market firms are much more likely to manage digitization projects in-house rather than engage outside consultants. When projects are kept in-house, common roadblocks to success are lack of talent and knowledge. Cities could provide support to middle-market firms by fostering partnerships for the middle market that fill knowledge and talent gaps in technology and innovation, including partnerships in the private sector and academia.

Second, middle-market companies currently spend only 19% of digitization dollars on future-oriented business initiatives, such as business analytics, strategy development and innovation programs. Yet these activities hold the greatest opportunity for future growth. Middle-market companies should invest more in such initiatives since middle-market companies, in just about every industry, need to have a digitization mindset. Cities can offer tax credits to motivate investment in future-oriented digitization efforts.

1 National Center for the Middle Market. “How Digital Are You? Middle Market Digitization Trends and How Your Firm Measures Up,” 2015.