What I Learned At the Washington Trade Conference

So, I’m just waking up from my post-Thanksgiving nap – having ingested a lot of Tryptophan as part of my three (!) servings of turkey – and, as I slowly exit from hibernation, I’m realizing that it’s been almost three weeks since the Washington Trade Conference on November 12!

To those of you who were there: Thank you! Approximately 300 of you had the opportunity to hear an amazing set of speakers discuss trade policy and its role in growing Washington’s international competitiveness. Highlights included Governor Gregoire, Senators Murray & Cantwell, Microsoft’s Brad Smith and some great panelists on topics like ports and services exports.

To those of you who weren’t (or who enjoyed it so much that you want to join me on a trip down memory lane), here are my top three takeaways:

1) There’s Broad Agreement On Our Shared Trade Policy Priorities – I know that I recruited all the speakers and picked the topics, but it still struck me how much broad agreement there was among our Senators, the Governor and our other speakers and panelists on the specific federal trade policy issues that are key to Washington’s international competitiveness. Multiple speakers mentioned the need to approve permanent normal trade relations with Russia, to successfully negotiate the Trans-Pacific Partnership, to better protect our intellectual property, and to reform the Harbor Maintenance Tax (HMT), and to invest in freight mobility. It’s no coincidence that these are all WCIT policy priorities, but it’s still exciting to hear that they’re reflected in the experiences of our state’s business and government leaders. More importantly, it means that there’s even more momentum to build strong coalitions to advocate for these priorities.

2) Ports R Us – I wish I knew how to do that backwards R thing in HTML, but you get the reference. This was actually a quote not from Tay Yoshitani from Port of Seattle or John Wolfe from Port of Tacoma (who did a great job on the ports panel), but actually part of Senator Cantwell’s speech. I think the exact line was something to the effect of “when people ask me what our state’s economic development strategy should be, I say ‘Ports R Us'”.

It’s an incredibly powerful statement, and very true. As we pointed out in the International Competitiveness Strategy for Washington State, “Not only does the port and freight services industry account for many trade-dependent jobs on its own but it is also a conduit for other industries that are exporting and importing; for example, there are many companies in Washington that are located in our state primarily because of access to these gateways to and from Asia. And many of our ports manage airports as well as seaports, which are also growing drivers of international trade: international tourists arrive via flights, services providers like architects and lawyers travel via flights, and air freight is a significant international transportation method for products ranging from aerospace to agricultural products. In other words, the ports of Washington are key enablers for our state’s trade economy.

One of the most basic focus areas for our international competitiveness is strengthening our ports, which are in one of the more competitive industries of a fast-changing world. Reforming the Harbor Maintenance tax, investing in freight mobility and looking at ways that policy and regulation impacts our ability to attract cargo are key.

3) I Agree with Brad Smith – Watching a really good speech get delivered really well is one of the more satisfying professional experiences one can have (other than catching a winning touchdown or hitting a game winning home run, neither of which are likely for your faithful State of Trade bloggers). So, for those of you who didn’t see Brad Smith deliver the keynote address at the Trade Conference, you missed out. The summary of Brad’s speech is online, including a full transcript, and I think he did a tremendous job getting to the heart of the matter with his statement that

[T]he single most remarkable, the single most striking, thing to me is that as I travel the world, everywhere I go, people are asking the same question. They’re asking: how do we compete? And in particular, they are asking: how do we develop and attract the people and the talent that will be necessary to compete effectively in the years and decades ahead? This is as true in the most advanced cities and countries as it is in emerging markets with lower wage jobs. They are all focused on the same thing. And I therefore think it’s appropriate that we start by asking this question ourselves and, in doing so, that we start by reflecting on the things that provide the strengths upon which we can build. [emphasis added]

As I’ve taken to saying ever since the release of the International Competitiveness Strategy, it’s all about maintaining and growing our international competitiveness by 1) understanding where you are, and then 2) taking some clear, tangible steps to address your opportunities and challenges.

Brad identified one of our key strengths as the diversity of our population, and one of our weaknesses as being our education system; he also outlined the opportunity he sees for increased success, including:

  • Branding and marketing the Puget Sound tech corridor, the second strongest tech cluster in the nation after the well-branded and well-marketed Silicon Valley;
  • Leveraging our geography and diversity by developing a strategy to lead the country in attracting direct investment from foreign – and specifically Asian – companies looking to expand their operations, their research centers, their sales and support centers, in North America;
  • Coming together to make the necessary investments in our ports, airports, roads, bridges and other infrastructure necessary for sustained economic growth; and
  • Building on the fact that 40 percent of all jobs in Washington are tied to international trade by looking at emerging markets and beyond for new trade opportunities, promoting the rule of law and staying vigilant on enforcement of intellectual property protection.

As I said, I agree. And I think we can truly build some exciting coalitions of folks around these action items. To quote Brad one last time, “2013 is going to be a momentous time. It is going to be a year in which important decisions will either be made or delayed. It will be a moment of truth. But, more than that, if we do our jobs well, it can be a moment to shine.”

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