Jeff Leiden knows this state still has a long way to go to recapture the jobs that have been lost due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
As the new chairman of the Massachusetts Competitive Partnership, Leiden is in an unusual position to help restore the local economy to glory. He has an ambitious agenda for the partnership, a coalition of 16 top executives at some of the most prominent local employers, as he looks ahead to his two-year term, which began in January.
Leiden, whose day job is executive chairman at Vertex Pharmaceuticals, where he was CEO until last year, discussed with the Globe the four initiatives that his high-powered group will undertake, dubbed “focus areas.” Together, they don’t represent a big pivot for the group, but Leiden wants to put a bigger emphasis on equity and education as the partnership puts its considerable clout to work to jumpstart the economy. (Jay Ash, Governor Charlie Baker’s former economic development secretary, oversees the partnership’s day-to-day operations as its chief executive.)
The group’s mission has never been more challenging. Launched in 2010, soon after the Great Recession, the partnership has worked behind the scenes on a variety of issues tied to making Massachusetts more competitive, all while the local economy boomed on its own accord. Now, the state could use some serious help. Yes, the state’s unemployment rate fell to 7.1 percent in February, and Massachusetts has added tens of thousands of jobs in the last two months. But employment levels in the state are still down nearly 9 percent from a year ago, with about 325,000 fewer jobs.
“If we get it right, we’ll come out of this stronger than we’ve ever been,” Leiden said. “If we get it wrong . . . I think there’s risk [for the state]. That’s an exciting thing for me to be a part of.”
Here’s a closer look at the four big items on Leiden’s agenda, and the partnership members who will lead the efforts:
Reinvigorating the economy and state budget post-COVID 19 (Kraft Group chairman Robert Kraft and Liberty Mutual CEO David Long): The goal here is to focus on state finances with a long-term view. They have been surprisingly resilient. But stimulus money won’t always be coming this way from Washington, and the state’s rainy day fund could use some replenishing. Leiden wants to use the partnership’s expertise and convene others to develop initiatives that the Legislature and governor can pursue.
Leiden said the group is just getting started, so he didn’t have specifics. This effort, he said, will be aimed at growing businesses in the state, to bring in more revenue, not necessarily by raising taxes. The partnership has previously opposed the so-called millionaires tax, a plan to impose an income tax surcharge on high-earners that could go to the ballot as soon as 2022. “We’re not anti-every-tax,” Leiden said. “But we want to make sure the taxes that we’re proposing increase business competitiveness and not decrease it.”
Preparing the workforce for the jobs of the future (Suffolk Construction CEO John Fish and Bank of America CEO Brian Moynihan): Leiden wants to define the growing career tracks and go to educational institutions such as community colleges to design curriculums to meet those needs. This echoes the push for credentialing that House Speaker Ron Mariano announced last week, to help people learn new trades without needing two- or four-year degrees. Leiden said the biotech industry, for example, needs more lab technicians, not necessarily more PhDs. Fish, meanwhile, is seeing demand for qualified electricians and plumbers. And partnership members such as Wayfair CEO Niraj Shah and Rapid7 CEO Corey Thomas need more workers with computer skills, Leiden said. No more than a year of schooling is necessary for many of these jobs, to achieve a middle-class wage, he said.
Growing the state’s innovation economy (MassMutual CEO Roger Crandall and Mass General Brigham CEO Anne Klibanski): Leiden led a successful effort to stoke the digital-health cluster a few years ago, convening a who’s who of community leaders to brainstorm ways to give Massachusetts an edge. Other partnership members, including Crandall and Putnam Investments chief executive Bob Reynolds, have started to do the same, with financial technology. Now, Leiden wants to replicate that success for other promising sectors of the high-tech economy. This could lead to mentorship programs, incubator space, or state policy changes. Leiden also wants the partnership to focus on a passion of his: bolstering science and math curriculums at the K-12 levels.
Social justice and providing opportunities for all (State Street CEO Ron O’Hanley, Rapid7′s Corey Thomas): As part of Leiden’s focus on science and math curriculums, he wants to put a particular emphasis on schools in underprivileged communities. The partnership also recently led a study on women entrepreneurship, alongside the City of Boston and Deloitte. Among the recommendations that came out last week: creating a centralized organization that could support women entrepreneurs statewide, in part by tying together many of the groups that exist across the state. Expect the partnership to play a key role in implementing those recommendations.
Leiden recognizes the partnership needs to take diversity seriously for its own membership, as well. While its makeup has become more diverse in recent years, white men still hold the majority of the seats. (This, in large part, reflects the fact the CEOs of big employers in the state still tend to be white men.) Leiden is hoping to make more strides during his term as chairman, by further diversifying who is around the table and the sectors they represent.
“We want our membership to look like the membership of the modern business community with respect to diversity and inclusion,” Leiden said, “but also with respect to the businesses represented in MACP.”