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Nurturing the Valley’s Tech Economy

Visalia Direct: Virtual Valley
September 2, 2010 Deadline
October Issue

Nurturing the Valley’s Tech Economy  

“What can we do to improve, or even create, Tulare County’s tech economy?”

When I receive messages after a column is published, they tend to ask technical questions. This summer, I received poignant messages about topics of special interest to me: our schools and our economy.

There is no quick and easy way to nurture a high-tech economy. Sadly, there are more examples of failure than success. In the Midwest, states have been trying to transition from manufacturing to technology for the last quarter century. Driving through these states, one finds empty business parks, faltering science-focused charter schools, and cities with uncertain futures. Tax breaks, special incentives, and substantial federal aid have not produced rivals to Silicone Valley or the Route 128 “Tech Corridor” of Massachusetts.

However, this summer I visited Texas, where high-tech is expanding at an amazing pace. Two Dallas County educators, a college dean and his wife, took me on a tour of the area and explained why they believe Texas could be a model. As socially engaged African-American educators and life-long Texas residents, my guides were familiar with areas much like our Central Valley.

According to these education experts, students need mentors from high-skilled professions. No textbook can match the power of a real life success story. Minority business owners, doctors, engineers, and others are asked to mentor students, which requires more dedication than speaking one day to a class.

Next, Texas sought to create state colleges and universities that were convenient and affordable, even in a difficult economy. Campuses that were once two-year community colleges are now affiliated with universities, allowing students to complete bachelor’s degrees awarded by prestigious universities. For example, Texas A&M oversees programs offered at Northeast Texas Community College sites. The University of Texas at Brownsville (UTB), oversees programs at Texas Southmost College, primarily serving students from disadvantaged backgrounds. The tuition is set at the community college rate, making a four-year education more affordable.

These schools have invested heavily in computer and media labs. The bachelor degree programs are limited to those degrees considered “high demand” based on surveys of regional employers. Students can obtain degrees in health care, science, engineering, and some teaching fields, but not in other areas. The general education requirements at these schools include foreign languages and world cultures because businesses want employees ready for international markets.  

While I was in Texas, Samsung announced a $3.6 billion manufacturing center. The Korean manufacturer found that Texas was an ideal location to design and fabricate computer chips. Affordable real estate, competitive wages, and an educated workforce made the project possible.

The Central Valley could have all these features. We certainly have affordable real estate. Our median salaries are possibly the most competitive in California. What we lack is the large pool of potential employees with science and engineering degrees.

Florida has also converted several two-year colleges to four-year universities. The theory is that such conversions are cheapest, and most essential, during a recession. The University of North Florida was a two-year “specialized” campus, for example, focused on teaching certification. Now, it is a full four-year university undergoing renovations and expansion. The UNF campus is “high-tech” throughout, with numerous computer labs, media production facilities, and a special faculty technology center.

In Texas and Florida, these conversions were advanced by cities and counties, often in the face of resistance by state legislatures. For undergraduates, Texas A&M, Texarkana, offers only 11 majors and enrolls fewer than 1600 students. The university also offers a handful of graduate degree majors. I learned the annual operating budget for a small college ranges from $3 million to $10 million, depending on location and staffing. It requires the equivalent of 1200 full-time students paying $100 per semester unit for such an institution to survive.

Campuses require facilities, at least classrooms. In Texas, universities and their affiliated colleges have converted “dead malls” and strip centers into classrooms. Administrative tasks are all online, so the satellite campuses have no offices, only classrooms and labs. New sites can be built on a budget, too. The College of the Sequoias Hanford Center cost $22 million, paid for by Kings County residents via Measure C bonds, approved in 2006.

Investing in education is the only way to nurture a high-tech economy. All the infrastructure imaginable won’t persuade a company to locate, or even remain, somewhere without skilled employees. Cities have wasted money on wireless networks, business parks, and more, only to be left with mounds of debt. The same money could have educated the employees of tomorrow.

We have to rise to the challenge of investing in education, even during this economic downturn.

Illustrating the challenges facing Valley students, Visalia Unified School District has been cutting some foreign language courses due to a combination of budget pressures and fading student interest. I understand why Spanish is the dominant foreign language offering, but at a time when German technology companies like SAP and Siemens are rising internationally to challenge American firms, we have decided German isn’t a necessary course offering. This is disheartening.

Many of the best students with whom I attended Golden West High School in the 1980s have moved away from the Central Valley. They felt they couldn’t reach their potentials as engineers or scientists remaining near home. We simply haven’t created the foundations for the industries of tomorrow.

Let us hope we have the political leaders with the will to communicate the need for investment in education. Leadership won’t be easy.

How has Texas done so much in a recession? Texas adopted the Texas Research Incentive Plan, legislation that matches private donations with state and local bond funds for universities in underserved areas. When Germany’s Bayer CropScience donated $5 million for an agrichemical program, a new high-tech academic major was born. Bayer also built a corporate facility near the satellite campus.

Private companies donated $17 million to create programs at UT satellite campuses, leading state and local governments to pledge $15 million in matching funds. The university system had hoped for $2 million for expansion in rural North Texas, but instead has $32 million available. And Bayer is offering internships and mentoring programs to students.

That’s creative problem solving.

A high tech future requires investment now and will take years to become a reality. The alternative is continued high unemployment and the departure of our best and brightest students from the Central Valley. That’s not acceptable.

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