High tech needs higher education

A strong technology economy supports fast-disappearing high paying jobs

Scott Keeney is the president and CEO of Vancouver-based nLight Corp. and the chairman of the Clark County High Tech Council.

During the late 20th century, the high tech sector took on an increasingly important role in the U.S. economy. Today, with the advance of globalization, it has become absolutely critical. Many of the jobs of the past will simply disappear, and a strong high tech economy is essential to supporting high paying jobs.

In Southwest Washington, we are fortunate to have a foundation for a strong high-tech economy. Today our region is home to world-class companies such as WaferTech, Sharp, Hewlett Packard, Linear, UL and many others. These firms provide a vital role in our regional economy today. Based on a recent report, the firms represented by the Clark County High Tech Council alone constitute almost $4 billion in annual sales and create employment for more than 8,000 people. These jobs offer average compensation that is well over twice that of the average in Clark County.

However, our high tech economy is unlikely to grow without significant improvements in our regional education system – both in higher education and in K-12.

There are many important prerequisites for a vibrant high-tech cluster, but none are more important than a world-class research university. It is no coincidence that the U.S. is both the dominant high tech economy in the world and also has 17 of the top 20 universities in the world, according to the recent rankings from Shanghai Jiao Tong University. These universities provide the backbone to all the major high-tech clusters in the country.

Stanford and Berkeley support a wide range of high-tech firms in Silicon Valley; Harvard and MIT support high-tech firms around Boston’s route 128; University of California at San Diego supports leading biotech companies around San Diego; the University of Washington supports leading software and biotech companies around the Puget Sound, and the list goes on.

The Vancouver/Portland region, however, is the glaring exception. While our region has some of the world’s leading high tech companies, there is not a regional university that ranks even in the top 100 in the world. In all the key high tech clusters in the U.S., the leading research universities not only educate the engineers and scientists for the local companies but also provide the research and incubation of future technologies that leads to the formation of new companies. In Southwest Washington, we have seen great progress over the past few years with WSU Vancouver, but more must be done to ensure continued growth in our regional high tech economy.

In addition to higher education, K-12 is also vital to a vibrant high-tech cluster. This is due to both the need to train future high tech employees and even more importantly, to provide an outstanding place to live for the high tech employees of today who keenly understand the importance of education for the future of their children.

Unlike the leading role U.S. universities play in the world, our K-12 system in the U.S. is lagging the rest of the world in critical areas such as science and math. According to the National Center for Education, average scores in science and math in the U.S. decline as students move through school leaving the U.S. ranking near the bottom on most measures for the 12th grade. While there are many great success stories in our region, we face problems that are similar to the rest of our nation, and we must find a way to make significant changes as our children hope to compete in the future global market.

In both K-12 and higher education, the reasons for our current situation are complex; however, one important step toward a solution is very simple indeed: everyone who cares about our region should find a way to help our schools. In particular, support from the business community is critical. While it is important to analyze critically the gaps in our education system, it is crucial to move forward to work toward pragmatic solutions. We are fortunate to have many great programs in place today in our region that need further support of our time and resources. While we are all very busy, we simply cannot afford to neglect this important investment in our future.

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