Seeing growth and development, deep in data

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In a sense, economist Chris Chmura’s interest in growth and development took off in the tiny Southwest Virginia town of Duffield, population 73.

That interest now has turned into a 25-year-old consulting firm, Chmura Economics and Analytics, with more than 800 clients and 70 employees.

But the firm was a lot smaller when she and her business partner, Leslie Peterson, had nailed down one of the first jobs for their new consulting firm, doing an economic profile of the farthest Southwestern corner of Virginia around Peterson’s Duffield hometown. (The population was 58 when Peterson was growing up, she recalls.)







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Leslie Peterson, left, is the president of Chmura Economics and Chris Chmura is the founder of Chmura Economics.




It was a piece of a major study the region’s planning district had commissioned, with other consultants crunching employment, Census and education data.

People are also reading…

“They end up with a binder this thick,” she said, holding thumb and index finger 3 inches apart. “And they would give it to the board … and then it’s a year and a half old by the time they get it. So it sits on a shelf.”

But Chmura knew the source of the data was a database refreshed quarterly or even more often.

She and Peterson thought delivering analyses based on fresher data would be a good business.

Chmura also knew from her time doing regional economic analyses for the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond and Crestar Bank that databases can have gaps.

One key data set used in many economic development analyses, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Quarterly Census of Employment and Wages, which counts jobs and tallies wages, broken down by industry and by county, metro area and state levels, only covers 95% of U.S. jobs.

But Chmura thought she could fill those gaps by analyzing other data sources, such as railroad pension information and Census data on workplace sizes.







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Chris Chmura, a native of Duffield, Virginia, is the founder of Chmura Economics.




Advising businesses

It took four years to do the analyses and create the interactive system that with a few taps on a keyboard can tell a business a good place for a new plant.

“And so if you have a paint coatings firm of 450 people, where around the nation will be the best place to locate based on the available labor, the training pipeline, the age, education, payroll, and all these other indicators?” she said, as a map of the United States with scores of green, greenish and red circles pops up on a screen.

Kenosha, Wisconsin and Cleveland turn out to be the top two contenders until Chmura orders the program to give a heavy rating on payroll, and Cleveland disappears — she’s from Cleveland, as it happens — and a smaller Ohio community and another in South Carolina move up.

When she types in Richmond, things don’t look as good.







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A screen shows software at Chmura Economics. It took four years to create their interactive system.




Another click of a computer mouse brings up a chart of the different kinds and numbers of jobs a paint factory of that size needs. It shows availability of workers with those skills in the region, a number developed from analyses of various employment, wage and staffing pattern statistics.

Richmond falls short on the potential pool of chemists and loading dock workers, in this case.

The metro area — Chmura’s home since the Clemson University field hockey star came here to earn a Ph.D. in economics at Virginia Commonwealth University — also did not do spectacularly well in a recent analysis Chmura Economics did for the business magazine Area Development.

Where Metro Richmond falters

Richmond ranked 255th out of 384 metro areas as a good site for a new business, despite a relatively high ranking for wage or salary growth and available workforce.

Lower ratings for what the analysis called “economic strength” and “workforce readiness,” however, knocked the region back to the middle of the pack.

The economic strength and workforce reading rankings reflect some less usual data sources: online job postings and indicators of research and development activity.







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Chris Chmura pulls something up on the screen at Chmura Economics’ office in Richmond.




Area Development magazine wanted to get a sense of short-term and longer-term growth prospects.

Since companies don’t post job openings unless they expect to hire, and growing demand for their products usually drives that — postings are a good indicator of short-term prospects, said Patrick Clapp, an analyst for Chmura Economics.

Spending on research and development can signal longer-term growth prospects, an indicator of where firms will eventually be hiring, he added.

In these cases, as with much data, a snapshot can be misleading, so Clapp looks at trends for listings and R&D spending over time.

“When you look at Richmond, we track the nation pretty closely,” Chmura said, pulling up a two-decade long fever chart comparing employment in the metro area, Virginia and the United States,

“You’d expect us to be in the middle of the pack” among the regions Area Development wanted to track.

The firm’s many databases allow it to customize reports for different customers: some have wanted a look at health care challenges in a region, others at poverty.

Sometimes a business, or sports team or project wants to tell backers about the impact it has on a community’s economy, Chmura said.

Its “forensics resumes” service taps into online resume postings in ways that can tell colleges how well graduates do in the job market — key to marketing efforts.

Chmura Economics uses job postings data to help companies get a sense of who’s looking for what kind of work, how long it takes a company to hire someone and, in many cases, what average pay looks like.

“And so, you know, when talking to the clients, sometimes they say ‘we’re trying to attract the young population, so let’s get a measure of bars, you know, bars people are attracted to. We said, No, we can’t find a measure of bars for every county in the U.S. but we can find total employment of, you know, restaurants to get a sense of it,” Chmura said.

“So we have a lot of economists, data governance people, I.T. … One of the things is when they find a new data set, they get so excited about it,” she added.







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The team at Chmura Economics sits around the conference table in Richmond.




One, that it takes an economist especially interested in Virginia to really appreciate, tracks people leaving the military.

“So military exits. When we got the data from the Department of Defense, we wanted to make sure we understand how they created it … with the guy who created the data, we wrote down his methodology so that if someone asks us, we could tell them,” she said.

The firm got the data for a few years “And then all of a sudden, we weren’t getting it … we wrote in: where are the military exits? The guy retired, he retired and he never told anyone how to do that. Never gave anyone the methodology, but we had the methodology,” Chmura said.

“So we asked for the data and through a FOIA have received the data. And so we used his methodology to create the military exit. So that’s how we have that data.”

Editor’s note: Chris Chmura occasionally writes a column for the Metro Business section.

Dave Ress (804) 649-6948

[email protected]