Is commerce undergoing a fundamental transition - not unlike the opening of trade routes for shipping or the Industrial Revolution?
The chief executives of both our nation and state in recent annual addresses emphasized jobs, but what is the proper role of government in stimulating private-sector jobs?
And if government has a role to play, what is the single, most-valuable contribution it can make?
Local business owners, legislators and community leaders offer varying answers, but also share some common perspectives of the area job market and economic landscape.
Randy Allen, president of the Jefferson City Area Chamber of Commerce, believes the economy is in the midst of a profound, structural revamping.
"We've lost 8 million jobs nationwide in the last two and half years," Allen said, referencing the national and state unemployment rates hovering at 9.4 percent.
"Demographics are changing - baby boomers are aging and the birth rate is slowing," he elaborated. "Manufacturing is declining as we witness more automating, outsourcing and downsizing."
Allen believes the service industry is replacing manufacturing, and the next wave of jobs will revolve around research, innovation, technology and energy.
Capitalizing on innovative opportunities forms the backdrop for local business owner Gary Wilbers, who became co-owner of Mid-America Wireless in 1991, when cellular telephone communication was in its infancy.
Wilbers characterizes himself as an "optimist" who believes business decisions must weigh risk and reward.
"Anyone who wants to grow their business must assess the risk, including government restrictions and reporting requirements," he said. "I believe, nationally, there's a lot of money sitting on the sidelines not being invested because business owners fear the risks are too great.
"As business owners, we must change that mindset," Wilbers added. "We must make a plan and follow that plan."
Wilbers believes local jobs remain available and advises job seekers to be aggressive.
"I've hired employees recently after receiving resumes from friends I trust," he said. "The key is matching an applicant's talents with the position. I encourage people to network and use their connections."
Local business owner Paula Benne is similarly optimistic and believes the local economy is poised for an upswing. As owner of C&S Business Services, a job service for both temporary and full-time employment, she said: "When there's a downturn, we're the first to go; and when there's a rebound, we feel it first. We're having the best January in many years, and I see 2011 as a good year."
Both Benne and Wilbers agreed government must eliminate obstacles to business, including restrictions and reporting requirements that dampen innovation and growth.
"Government needs to stay out of the way," Benne said. "The reporting process is inefficient and unorganized. We file documents with the government, and then they can't find them."
Their sentiment is largely shared by state Sen. Mike Kehoe, R-Jefferson City and owner of a local auto dealership, who agrees government's most important role is to eliminate hurdles to the business community.
"Government doesn't create private-sector jobs," Kehoe said, echoing a observation made by Wilbers.
"Government's role," Kehoe continued, "is to create the climate where business can grow and expand."
Kehoe also sees local hiring beginning to increase.
"If a new manufacturer comes to town, that would be a major story," he said, "but if 100 existing employers each hire two people, that would be equally important but largely unnoticed."
Rep. Jay Barnes, R-Jefferson City, said construction of a second Callaway nuclear plant - a proposal being advanced in the state Senate by Kehoe - could serve as that new major employer in Central Missouri.
"Callaway II would bring 6,000 construction jobs to this area during the next 10 years," Barnes said, "not to mention the permanent jobs for ongoing operations."
From a statewide perspective, Barnes said the best thing government could do is approve the Fair Tax, which essentially would eliminate the state income tax and offset the revenue loss by increasing the scope and amount of the state sales tax.
"When you tax activity, you get less activity," Barnes said, "where if you tax consumption, you may get less consumption, but you're not directly hindering productivity."
"The Fair Tax," Barnes concluded, "would add jobs in Missouri."
Barnes brought the conversation full-circle when he said: "I agree with Randy Allen. Many jobs of the future are going to shift from traditional manufacturing to fields like engineering and energy."
Contemplating those changes, Allen wondered aloud: "How long will it be before we catch up and adapt? And how do we kick-start jobs in the meantime?"