What’s Your Community’s Comparative Advantage?

Published on Mar 7, 2019

Updated on Nov 3, 2022

Written by Emsi Burning Glass

What’s Your Community’s Comparative Advantage?

Most economic development leaders, like most business leaders, understand their organizations can’t operate without data. They know analytics are essential to inform their strategic planning, business recruitment, and talent attraction.

What’s less of a given for communities—or at least something many still grapple with—is knowing which data points to focus on and how to harness those metrics to tell their story to businesses, workers, and investors.

Economic developers are tasked with telling their community’s story because they know it better than anyone. They could decide to market a niche industry cluster, a concentration of a specific type of talent, a creative coworking space, an effective partnership with workforce or education providers, or dozens of other unique assets.

What are your region’s comparative advantages, and how do you drive them home on your website and in your messaging?

In this article, we’re going to share data storytelling best practices we gleaned from our recent IEDC webinar with Site Selection Group and our interactions with the many Fortune 500 companies we provide global labor market analytics to through our data platform and consulting.

Businesses and site selection consultants are becoming savvier data consumers. Here are six tips for how communities can up their data storytelling game, too.

Tip #1: Uncover the workforce variables companies care about

Before you venture into storytelling and visualizations, you need trustworthy, accurate economic data to use as your foundation. This is especially tricky for rural communities, where data is not as robust or compelling in some cases.

Where to start?

First, it bears emphasizing that the No. 1 question for every business is: How will we hire five, 50, or 500—or in Amazon’s case with its new split headquarters, 25,000—people today and in the future? Odds are your community’s small companies are facing hiring challenges, too.

“The availability of an available workforce is typically the biggest location driver,” Josh Bays of Site Selection Group said.

On the subject of workforce, companies typically focus on three bedrock variables: supply, demand, and compensation.

When businesses assess the viability of a market, they want to know how many workers compared to the national average they can tap into (hello, location quotient!), what the competition is for those workers (enter job postings), and how much they’ll have to pay those workers.

Make it easy for the companies interested in expanding in or relocating to your region to find or quickly get this information. It also goes a long way to put the data in their language. 

Workforce data by job title or skill often resonates much more with companies than data by standard occupation code (SOC or O*NET).

Tip #2: Don’t ignore these overlooked data points

Building off the core workforce variables above, the following are four often-overlooked data points that Bays and Chris Schwinden of Site Selection Group called out in our joint webinar:

  1. Where workers live vs. where they work: Labor commuting patterns give companies an idea of where talent is located—during the workday and at night when workers are home. The Census Bureau’s OnTheMap tool is worth checking out if you aren’t familiar with it. Emsi models this data to detailed occupations by ZIP code and allows analysts to look at their resident workforce (or place-of-work jobs) for a drive-time radius around a site or specific address.

  2. Skills detail and data by job title: Companies don’t operate using government occupation codes. That’s why workforce supply and demand data by job title and skill is so critical. Government sources like the BLS can tell you how many computer programmers or welders your region has (if the data is not suppressed). But how many programmers with a specific coding language or welders with fabrication skills does your region have? For this reason, Emsi provides profile analytics (supply by job title, skill, college, company) to contrast with job posting analytics (employer demand).

  3. Specific compensation and real market wage metrics: Said Schwinden, “Especially in this [tight] labor market and especially when you’ve got the Amazons of the world announcing $15 an hour for a warehouse associate, it’s really tough to find real-time, accurate wage and salary data.” How to get this data? Schwinden recommended conducting a labor study or survey or working with local staffing companies. Emsi also offers compensation data that combines 40 million compensation observations with publicly available salary data to estimate wages for occupations by skill.

  4. Educational completions and training programs: Schwinden recommended combining educational completion data from IPEDS with on-the-ground info on new or longstanding training programs and partnerships. If workforce availability is the No. 1 location driver for businesses, “workforce training, I would argue, is 1A on that list, because there aren’t a lot of available workers on the sidelines,” Schwinden said. “So what are local institutions doing to address that?”

Tip #3: Build off of your regional strengths and driver industries

It’s easy to get caught up in the latest emerging industry or mega site selection project. But do these fit your community’s or region’s strengths?

This can’t be stressed enough: You’ll see the greatest results when you focus your community’s story on what you’re best at. This is why you need to understand your local labor market and economic realities—the good and bad.

The most compelling data points are usually related to the industries and clusters that drive your economy. These tend to be traded sectors that export products and services and bring in outside dollars.

Best practice: Macomb County, Michigan, has identified and communicated its nine target super industry clusters with data highlights, top companies in the area, and success stories.

Visual of Macomb County’s Targeted Industry

Tip #4: When visualizing data, less is more

Let’s say you’ve isolated the data points that are most important to your region and best tell your story. What next?

It’s time to visualize that data on your website and in campaigns that you can give to businesses or people interested in moving to your region.

This is where the process breaks down for many communities. They either display way too much data in one spot, bury relevant numbers deep on their website, or showcase data that quickly gets old or irrelevant.

That brings us to our fourth tip: When visualizing data, less is more.

It’s far better to highlight a few charts that communicate your true workforce strengths than tables of data that require patience to find on your website and experience with analytics to decipher. One idea from Schwinden: Consider building something similar to The Wall Street Journal’s recap of the monthly job report in eight charts, only for your region’s labor force. To help EDOs share crucial data points on their workforce, Emsi launched an infographic generator called Community Showcase. To learn more, contact us.

Example visual from Community Showcase

Remember, you know your community’s story better than anyone; don’t leave it up for interpretation from an outside source.

Best practice: Gilbert, Arizona, has developed interactive data visualizations that communicate its story as an up-and-coming Phoenix suburb.

Tip #5: Provide context and make data comparative

It’s always better to provide context and comparisons when showing data.

For example, put your population growth up against your competitors’ growth, and show that your community is better—or improving. “Data always stands out better when it’s put in a comparative framework,” Schwinden said.

He also noted highlighting data trends over time is always appreciated by businesses. You can tell a stronger story by showing an upward trend, even if you have just a few years of data.

Best practice: As soon as you land on its website, Greater New Orleans, Inc. excels at marketing how the New Orleans metro area ranks on important metrics like workforce diversity and share of millennial workers.

Tip #6: Remember the limitations of data

Every data source has its strengths and weaknesses. If you use a data set, be prepared to discuss where the data comes from (administrative records from employers, surveys, etc.) and the story it helps tell. Other data considerations from Site Selection Group:

  • When data lies: Sometimes, secondary data doesn’t tell the whole story, so it’s important to fill in the gaps with on-the-ground intel and other primary data sources.

  • Demonstrate community challenges, issues, and problems: No one is immune to having workforce problems, and you can use those challenges to your advantage. Schwinden calls this strategic candor. “We often find, and our clients find, that it’s far more compelling to strategically show those challenges, show how your community has addressed them, and talk about how you’re seeing results,” Schwinden said.

  • Show, don’t tell: This is storytelling through your words and your employers’ words. Tell your full story, rather than just showing raw data.

Conclusion: Don’t be scared of data

There’s much to consider when trying to effectively harness the power of data. It’s much better, however, to embrace analytics—and data-fueled technology—than shy away from them.

More companies are investing in data and data storytelling. More communities should be doing the same to tell their story.


If you have any questions or need help harnessing the power of workforce data, please reach out to Josh Wright at jwright@economicmodeling.com.