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Public policy with a passion


BY RICH FOWLER

Staff Writer

Talking to John Quinterno is always an educational experience. He keeps a constant eye out for what’s going on in the local, state and national economy, and the way he explains it all shows his deeper concern for the people behind the numbers.

He doesn’t look at the economy or politics as just abstract concepts; he sees them as tools people need to make their lives better. And when he analyzes those tools, he uses a straightforward measuring stick: “Are we delivering results for the individuals in our society?”

A lot of Quinterno’s passion for public policy work came from a childhood spent in parochial school on Long Island, in Rockville Center, New York. Lessons about work and the dignity of work left a lasting impression on him. And as he got more involved in volunteer work through college at Notre Dame, he got more interested in helping people through public policy.

Now Quinterno runs a business in Chapel Hill as an independent economic and public policy researcher and consultant, and that perspective gives him a unique take on the issues facing our community and our state.

“I’ve always had that interest in how people come together to try to work through hard issues and figure out what is probably the best thing to do in terms of delivering benefits or solving problems that benefit everyone.”

A few years after he got his master’s degree in public administration from the UNC School of Government in 2002, he started working at the N.C. Budget and Tax Center, part of the N.C. Justice Center, where he started meeting state policymakers and getting exposed to state issues.

“I think I developed a niche and a reputation for myself as someone who does high-quality work and who’s fairly thoughtful about these issues and brings a somewhat different perspective.”

After working at the Justice Center for four years, Quinterno decided to open South by North Strategies this past summer. The name refers to his move to Chapel Hill from New York.

“People had been asking me for a while if I could help them with things, and after having spent a lot of time saying no, I decided to start saying yes.”

Now he provides research and communication services for public agencies and nonprofits. He specializes in economic and social policy, because a lot of times organizations want to get involved in an issue but don’t have the staff to research it.

Business has been good so far, even in a down economy, but Quinterno feels that as long as he continues to find good clients and good projects he should be fine.

“I pretty much started in June, I’ve been working fulltime, and I’m still here almost a year later. So that’s progress in and of itself. That’s a victory.”

Recently he finished working on a study on how to help improve the skills of low-income workers in the South for the Mary Reynolds Babcock Foundation. The report, titled “When Any Job Isn’t Enough: Jobs-Centered Development in the American South,” looks at the way job creation has shifted in the South from unskilled manufacturing jobs to more highly skilled jobs that require better-trained workers and how Southern states are trying to train those workers.

So what does Quinterno think about the unemployment situation in Orange County? “Our unemployment rate is probably at one of the highest levels that’s been recorded in the last 25 to 30 years, and it’s about 6 percent, maybe a little bit under. That’s a level most places would aspire to even under the best of circumstances. I’m not trying to minimize the fact that it’s severe here, by our relative standards. But the fact is that even though it’s bad here now by historical standards, it’s still pretty good in the grand scheme of things.”

But he warns that if state governments don’t get federal aid in balancing their budgets this year, there could be more painful job losses in the state workforce, and that could have local effects.

“I think that’s going to matter to the folks in the Chapel Hill-Carrboro area, given the importance the university plays as an employer. I knew several folks in research capacities who were laid off from the university last year as a result of the budget, and I think we could see more reductions coming next year without additional assistance.”

According to Quinterno, the overall economy is slightly better than it was last year. “I think we’ve had a level of improvement and stabilization, if you will, and that’s owing to a variety of developments and factors, not the least being a massive intervention across the board through public policy, particularly at the federal level.”

But he warns that high unemployment will delay any recovery. “I would not say we’re completely out of the woods, and I would say that long-term recovery or long-term growth is looking very weak, largely because of the just terrible shape the national and state labor market happens to be in.”

Quinterno doesn’t think national or state unemployment numbers will recover anytime soon. “We’re looking at a multi-year period. And it may not be for another three, four, five years, depending on where you set your benchmark, until we get to where we were in December 2007.”

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