Saturday, November 10, 2012

High Tech Solution to Low Tech Cities in Crisis

Guest Post by Bree Hernandez.  Ms. Hernandez is a researcher and writer from the Seattle area, please contact her if you're interested in working on a post:

According to many recent reports -- some of which have been analyzed on these pages -- the future of jobs in the U.S. is likely in technology. This means that investing in science and computer education is smart both for students and local communities. In today’s post blogger Bree Hernandez, who writes predominantly about how to get into college, takes a look at how graduate programs in the IT sector may have the potential to help boost cities’ economic profiles while also improving job prospects for graduates.

Using Masters Programs to Attract New Companies Could be Exactly What Ailing Cities Need
Technology has been mounting a slow ascent in the American job market, and may actually be the saving grace this country needs to emerge from the slump of the past few years. More jobs are being created in the computer science and tech sectors than in any other, and cities that place an emphasis on high-tech ventures are seeing much faster economic recoveries than are those that remain focused on industries of the past—straight manufacturing, for instance, or market retail. In nearly all cases, the cities experiencing the biggest tech “booms” are home to universities with robust computer science programs, particularly at the masters and PhD levels. There is certainly an argument for sponsoring these sorts of programs in order to revitalize nearby economies.

Entrepreneurial students will often stay nearby post-graduation and start new ventures; existing tech companies are also attracted to areas with wide swaths of trained workers. There is a better argument for a Microsoft or a Facebook to open offices in an area where there is a broad pool of interns and new graduates to hire than someplace with little going on, tech-wise—when the talent is already there, setting up shop is often no harder than filtering through resumes and making hires. Relocating personnel tends to be much harder.

Growth of Tech Jobs in New Economy
Many of the new jobs being created today are classified as “technical.” Information technology officers, network architects, and coders are in very high demand—in fact, many companies are having a hard time actually filling the slots they have for many of the most involved jobs. The training required is often intense. Those with graduate degrees in tech-specific areas are accordingly sought after.
Across most sectors of the economy we see the number of jobs shrinking,” Pamela Passman, a former corporate vice president at Microsoft, told National Public Radio back in 2010. “We see jobs in the IT sector growing—not as much as in past years—but there still is growth.
That growth has continued to expand, but it is not ubiquitous. Most of the time, these jobs—many of which are very high-paying and come with astounding advancement potential—are centered in certain job “hubs.”

Finding the Jobs, and Understanding Why They Are Where They Are
California’s Silicon Valley has long been the go-to region for this sort of work, and companies like Apple and Google are thriving there. The area is fed by powerhouse universities like Stanford and the University of California-Berkeley, but also attracts top innovators from all over the world.

When Forbes magazine in 2012 compiled a list of the “best cities for tech,” however, the Valley was not at the top of the list. “Even though the current boom has sparked an impressive 8% expansion in the number of tech jobs in the San Jose-Sunnyvale-Santa Clara metropolitan statistical area over the past two years, and 10% over the past decade, the area still has 12.6% fewer STEM jobs than in 2001,” the report said. San Jose ranked 7th; nearby San Francisco came in at 13th.

Seattle and its surrounding suburbs took first place.
Its 12% tech job growth over the past two years and 7.6% STEM growth beat the Valley’s numbers,” Forbes said. “More important for potential job-seekers, the Puget Sound region has grown consistently in good times and bad, boasting a remarkable 43% increase in tech employment over the decade and an 18% expansion in STEM jobs.”
The Seattle metro area is home to both Microsoft and Amazon, as well as a growing number of tech start-ups and high-powered entrepreneurial ventures. Larger corporations often have the potential to recruit nationally, but smaller ventures often look to nearby universities as feeder programs.

The University of Washington: A Case Study in Tech Creation
Seattle’s University of Washington has invested tremendously in its tech curriculum, which many believe is one of the leading reasons for the region’s jobs boom in this sector. The Washington State Legislature in 2012 approved a budget boost for the school’s computer science division, and grants from private companies—Amazon included—have given the school profound strength at both the undergraduate and graduate levels. More students are enrolling in these programs, and are leaving with the expertise local businesses need to grow and thrive. Many of the jobs new graduates find are directly in the IT sector, but not all are. Technical training has a way of bleeding into other industries, making manufacturing and even agriculture smarter and more efficient.

Birmingham: A Contrast in Priorities
Cities without strong university computer science programs tend to lack the high-tech jobs that are spurring the economy in so many places. Birmingham, Alabama is one such place. Birmingham’s economy is centered on traditional industries. There is nothing inherently wrong with this approach, but it may be leading to stagnation where new jobs and growth are concerned.
We’re adding enough jobs to tread water but not to make much progress in bringing down the slack that remains,” Richard Moody, chief economist at Regions Financial Corp. in Birmingham, told Bloomberg in early November. “The labor market is consistent with the middling growth we’ve seen in the overall economy.
The city’s primary university, the University of Alabama-Birmingham, has a strong college of Arts and Sciences, but is not well known for its tech sector. Its top-ranked graduate programs are all in the health sciences. While useful surely, these will not encourage high-tech companies to look to Birmingham as any sort of hot-spot, at least not anytime soon.

Cutting-edge technology programs are not the only way for cities to crawl out of the recession, but they do hold a lot of promise. Committing to train the next generation to take jobs in the high-tech sector has proved smart for Seattle and cities up and down both coasts—Washington, D.C., Boston, and the San Francisco-Bay Area included. With so many opportunities in technology, it makes a lot of sense to lay the early groundwork for future investments now.

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