On Sept. 9, the Portland Community Chamber released its 2014-2015 economic scorecard for the city of Portland, ranking the city’s economy along 28 indicators, including employment growth. Those figures, which show employment rates and job growth lagging as compared to the rest of the country, will shape a powerful story about the vulnerable economy of this city.

Don’t get comfortable with that story, though. Those jobs numbers are most certainly incomplete.

They’re incomplete because they don’t include figures for people who work in place. These are people who work for organizations that are based elsewhere, or that don’t have any central office whatsoever. They’re not contractors or freelancers; they’re on staff, have titles and receive salaries, but their companies are headquartered elsewhere, often outside Maine. In general, their jobs are counted in the states where their companies are located, while their income is attributed to the states where they reside.

But no one collects this data – not Camoin Associates, which prepared the Portland economic scorecard; not the state’s Department of Labor; not the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics; not the Internal Revenue Service.

There’s a whole subset of the workforce that is invisible in plain sight. Not only don’t we know how many people work in place, we don’t know which industries they tend to work in or the size of their economic contribution to the local tax base. You might say that there’s a work-in-place hole in the data.

I’m not supposing that there are uncounted tens of thousands of these kinds of employees living in Maine, but I seem to meet these folks all the time. Maybe you do, too.

Sometimes they’ve brought their jobs with them when they relocated to the Portland area; less frequently, they found the jobs while living here. In any case, I know for a fact there’s at least more than one work-in-placer, because my wife works for a software company that is fully distributed (which means they have no central office). Until a year ago, I also worked in place, for a think tank in Washington, D.C. I really want to know how many work-in-placers there are, but it’s not the absence of numbers in themselves that I worry about. In the business and policy world, if you don’t have the right numbers, you can’t tell the story you need to tell. That’s the nature of our times.

Numbers tell, and numbers sell. In Portland and in Maine, there’s no more important story to tell than the one about jobs. So I worry that an incomplete story about Portland is going to be told, a story that feeds back into people’s understanding of the place where they live, visit and invest.

A story about an economically vulnerable city becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. People think the outlook is bleak, which leads them to act and think in ways they wouldn’t otherwise, such as thinking mistrustfully about outsiders or the poor. (You can read this taking shape in the comments to the Portland Press Herald’s Sept. 9 article about the Camoin Associates report, “Portland economy losing ground at ‘alarming’ rate, study shows.”)

That projects an air of intolerance, which is a trait that makes the city less attractive as a destination for everyone. That’s only one of the feedback loops that the wrong story sustains.

Another such loop is this one: A bleak jobs story might make people think we have to double down on attracting firms through tax incentives. But researchhasdemonstrated that this ends up being a net financial loss per job. It’s an economic development strategy that doesn’t fit the changing nature of work in some sectors. It also doesn’t fit the reality that migrations of workers may already be happening under everyone’s noses.

A more productive, innovative economic development strategy may be to find and recruit individual households where one or more breadwinner works in a company that’s friendly to work-in-place arrangements.

Will those people come? That depends on whether or not they’re attracted to Maine’s quality of life. It also depends on whether or not the culture of work can be changed to make work-in-place arrangements more visible. And for that, we need more complete data.

— Special to the Press Herald