Wednesday, November 7, 2012

A High Tech Solution to Low Tech Cities in Crises

Should you get a graduate education? This question is central to writer Bree Hernandez’ work, and also plays into her post today. According to Bree, the answer is usually “yes” -- but much depends on the subject you are studying, as well as the jobs profile of your school’s location. The Mid-Pacific ICT Center blog is happy to add Bree’s thoughts to ongoing dialogues about ways to create American competitiveness and opportunity.  

Using Advanced Education to Repair Broken Cities

In today’s economy, technology and technological innovation are currencies that carry a lot of weight. The tech sector, which broadly encompasses computer science, Internet infrastructure and engineering, and mobile platform development, is creating more jobs than nearly any other. More and more, these ventures seem to have the power to dramatically revitalize not only the American business landscape, but also the local communities where they originate. Jobs are not simply sprouted overnight, however. They usually require intense initiative, as well as qualified workers. Tech-heavy education is growing as a priority across the country, but it remains true that cities and towns that are home to universities with robust computer science programs tend to be faring better than those whose schools focus on more traditional disciplines.

The just-beginning economic rebound has unearthed a number of new trends. Though job numbers are once again spiking, the industries that are hiring today are often substantially different from those that were popular five years ago. High-tech jobs are one example. “During the first half of the year, the tech industry added nearly 100,000 jobs, an increase of 1.7 percent, bringing the total number of Americans employed in the tech sector to 6 million,” National Journal reported in October 2012. “Global economic and market forces continue to put the technology industry in a position of intense competition—a competition for innovation, where labor and intellectual property provide the foundation for growth,” Jennifer Kerber, president of the TechAmerica Foundation, a research organization, said.

Technology has been a growth area for this country for decades. The difference now is in correlating demand to talent base. Most of the jobs being posted today require intense coding, IT, or other computer-related knowledge—knowledge that many of the people laid off during the financial crisis simply do not have. This is bad news for those looking for work, but can hold a lot of promise for those currently in college.

The need for tech-savvy workers has led a lot of emerging companies and tech ventures to set up shop in regions where there are already universities training the sorts of workers they need. Northern California’s Silicon Valley is an obvious example. Stanford and the University of California-Berkeley are both natural feeders for this region. Perhaps not coincidentally, both were also just named to the number-one slot for “best computer science program” by U.S. News & World Report.

U.C. Berkeley in particular has a long history of promoting technological innovation and creative, entrepreneurial thinking amongst its students. The school has been active in local research, including notably the California Partners for Advanced Transportation TecHnology (PATH). PATH is a Berkeley research institute that pairs students and faculty with city officials to strategize technological fixes and innovations for everything from improving traffic flow to developing in-dash car software program. The school’s location also gives graduates an “in” for entry-level jobs at Google, Apple, and a range of local ventures both large and small.

The density of tech-savvy grads in the San Francisco-Bay Area has also attracted outside corporations, like Bayer. Though primarily a pharmaceutical corporation, Bayer has a great need for employees with a high degree of proficiency in technology. Pharmacology is one of several growing areas for technological innovation, from genome mapping to streamlining production efficiencies.

Bayer does much more than simply provide a job source for university graduates, though. Its presence has also has done a lot to revitalize the surrounding community. “Over the years, Berkeley’s largest for-profit employer has contributed $20 million to the city, created hundreds of jobs, developed paid science training programs for youth and invested in a community foundation to support key health and education programs,” Berkeleyside reported in 2012.

Those same benefits are harder to find in cities where advanced tech education is less prevalent. Newark, New Jersey is but one example. “If you’re looking for a job in technology, get out of New Jersey, fast,” VentureBeat said in 2012 in an article summarizing a recent report on the tech job outlook from Internet jobs site SimplyHired listed Newark first on a list of “worst markets to be looking for a tech job.”  

The job market in Newark is not necessarily bad, at least not when compared to other cities nationwide. It isn’t exactly booming, either, though. This may be at least partly because the city simply hasn’t prioritized tech and tech education the way cities like Berkeley have. Unless companies see a wealth of opportunities waiting in terms of talent and personnel, they are less likely to move and establish bases there. The same is usually true for start-ups. Tech-based startups are thriving in many sectors, but are not just anywhere. The climate has to be right, both in terms of audience and talent access, in order to help a new venture really take off.

Of course, there are always exceptions. True entrepreneurs—particularly those with robust financial backing—can be seduced by the “if you build it, they will come” model of enterprise. Such is the case with Las Vegas. Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh has committed millions of dollars to convert a patch of the downtown area into a model for high-tech communities and businesses. He is bringing in most of his own employees, though, at least at first. “The audacious vision, which Hsieh hopes to pull off in just a few years, would infuse the desolate downtown with sparkling new workplaces, housing and cultural destinations,” a USA Today feature profiling the project said.

Jobs of the future are unlikely to be familiar to many from the past. Computers and Internet infrastructure seem to be very much the way forward. Getting an education in this field can be a sure way to track into a career—be it in the local community of the school, or in new “tech villages” like that planned for Las Vegas. A common denominator to all of these experiences is the education.

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