Tech Jobs in Washington

Last week I met with the Washington Technology Industry Association (WTIA) to talk about their agenda for 2011. No surprise, it’s about jobs here in Washington. What surprised me was how they chose to spend their time in the meeting. We had an hour set aside (but took 2). They started with over 45 minutes on improving the K-12 education system in Washington.

Their bigest complaint is that it’s hard to hire competent people from inside the state. They showed me a job description for a technical support manager from a local high tech company that has been open for 6 months. This is 6 months in the middle of the worst economic downturn in the last 70 years, mind you. The job pays $125,000 a year. It’s risky and expensive to hire from out of state – some fraction of the people they hire don’t like the area and move away, and the moving and recruiting costs are excessive.

The job is still open today. The WTIA has 600+ jobs on its job board, and Microsoft has thousands of open jobs. The last time I check Microsoft hired only 8% of its new hires from inside Washington.

The WTIA had a number of other concerns as well – chief among them the extension of the research and development tax credit program. This is the same program the Obama administration is making permanent at the national level, and one we should make permanent here as well. The idea is that we provide credits for businesses that build R&D facilities and keep them in use. R&D generates very high wage jobs, and the resulting economic activity generates many jobs. The Department of Revenue released a report on the program in 2003 that got us to extend them then, and the industry would like a stable tax platform for the future. This kind of activity drives our future and getting the tax code right for it is crucial. We’ll revisit the research this year in the Finance committee and consider making them permanent or at least extending them for another decade.

But let’s come back to the main part of the meeting – creating the technical talent that companies need in order to prosper. There are lots of things we can do to develop this talent:

  • Make sure that all kids have access to a curriculum that prepares them to succeed in education after high school. Not all kids are going to be a technical support manager, but if we don’t get more kids excited about this kind of career and prepared with the math and science skills we won’t be able to be competitive as a region. The Core 24 program we approved last year and the State Board put some structure into earlier this month creates this curriculum for all kids.
  • Expand access to high-quality math and science instruction, particularly in remote and underserved districts. Our suburban districts have access to great math and science instruction, but small rural and inner-city districts often do not. We can use virtual instruction on the internet to make high-tech instruction available to everyone, even if there are only three kids who want an AP Calculus class in a particular school.
  • Create more capacity in higher ed for tech jobs. These degrees cost the system more to produce, but pay off in increased hiring of our kids, rather than out of state kids. We don’t have to have all of the new capacity at the UW.  Bellevue College could provide a lot more 4-year capacity than it does today if we let them. The Seattle Times covered the approach in an article last year.

Looking at the economy of the future is scary for people without the skills to succeed. We should focus more effort on trying to ensure that people are prepared for the jobs that are coming than on trying to bring back industries that are going away. The new economy is coming a lot sooner than everyone thought as a result of the “reset” we’re going through now, and the sooner we focus our efforts on preparing our workforce for the economy of the future the better off we’ll be. For some hints about what might come to pass you might enjoy Richard Florida’s new book “The Great Reset.” Of course, you can read the summary article from the Atlantic Monthly last year for free…

Author: Ross

I am the Director of the Department of Early Learning for Washington State. I formerly represented the 48th Legislative District in the State House of Representatives, chairing the Appropriations committee and spent many a year at Microsoft.