What’s happening in state government, and why tech leaders need to be involved

lewmcmurran

Lew McMurran

As a 24-year veteran of Olympia, Wash., roaming the halls and advocating for a wide range of business interests, and working for the last 13 years as the tech industry’s main lobbyist, I am still taken aback by the average citizen’s lack of knowledge about their own state government, what role state legislatures play, and the impact state government can have on our everyday lives.

Some of that lack of awareness comes from a lack of media coverage about the goings-on of state government.  Congress and all its foibles are constantly broadcast, leading us to believe that every unit of government is massively dysfunctional.

It is true that the incessant infusion of politics into the process of governing has made government less a servant of the people than a servant of who happens to be running the unit of government (city, state, nation) at any given time. But the fact is that the majority of state Representatives (98) and Senators (49) are in office for public service and want to do the right thing by the majority of the population.  But the “right thing” is what democracy and legislating are all about. This is why it is important to monitor the state legislature, so that affected parties can have a voice and promote solutions.

So, for the state’s tech industry, what are those “right things” that we need to understand and advocate? The number one issue for tech companies of all shapes and sizes is talent, particularly those with computer science degrees as well as engineering. This report goes into detail about the mismatch between supply of graduates and the demand, with computer science and engineering as two of three biggest skill gap areas (health professions are the other—also STEM related).

The report cites the heavy in-migration of those with bachelor’s and graduate degrees, especially in STEM fields.  Page 19 of the report shows this gap in an easy-to-read chart.

chart1

Why does this matter to the tech industry?  Well, for medium-sized and smaller companies that are competing with Amazon, Google and Microsoft for talent, having a larger supply of graduates from state universities alleviates the need to recruit from far-flung places. The global tech companies have the world from which to recruit, while the startups and growing companies do not have that luxury.

Secondly, with regards to higher education, the larger issue is simply a better educated citizenry.  Not only does our state not produce nearly enough CS and engineering grads, four-year college participation rates in Washington are near the bottom of the 50 states (participation in two year schools is quite high).  The problem with this trend is that Washington’s economy generally creates high-skill, high-wage jobs, many of which require a four-year degree, so too many of both younger workers and older workers needing additional academic preparation are left behind to imported workers with the requisite bachelor’s or graduate degree.

capitolThis means that the tech industry and the business community at large need to be more vocal about higher education funding.  Higher education falls down the list of priorities in every budget cycle, especially when the economy is floundering—which is when more people go back to or stay in school.

The numbers are clear — Washington has a huge gap in STEM degrees that provide the skills needed by tech companies, and the state’s universities do not produce enough. This is not entirely the fault of the schools since it is the legislature that sets the funding and tuition levels. The pressure has to be applied by stakeholders — that is us — on our state Representatives and Senators to ensure that higher education gets adequately funded and that more dollars go specifically to computer science and engineering.

This deck shows how University of Washington has allocated the additional funds they received in the current state budget for expanding CS and engineering.  The universities will respond when directed and given the right amount of resources.

As a tech industry member, and as a citizen, let your state legislators know you care about higher education funding and to expand funding for computer science and engineering. You can find your legislators here.

The legislature will convene again for a regular 60 day session beginning the second Monday of January.

In our next installment, I will discuss the tax incentives for Research and Development that are set to expire in 13 months if no action is taken by the legislature in 2014.

Lew McMurran has been lobbying for various companies, local government and trade associations for the last 24 years, the last 13 of which were spent with WSA/WTIA, representing the tech industry in Olympia. He is now an independent government relations consultant working with tech companies on issues related to state and local government. Follow him on Twitter @lewismcmurran.

Washington State Capitol Dome image via Flickr.

  • 509

    How about we pay the tuition for any science or engineering degree for legal Washington state residents.

    We pay for it by getting rid of the R&D tax breaks.

  • NotinSeattle

    How about helping out with tuition (as mentioned below), setting up additional technical programs at all the 4 year universities in Washington (maybe a few Masters programs too), and spreading out the jobs throughout the state. Tech jobs do not need to be located in Seattle or the Eastside, there are technical professionals who do not want to relocate.

  • margaret Bartley

    Every two years, the Workforce Training and Education Coordinating
    Board, in cooperation with the Association of Washington Business and
    the Washington Chamber of Commerce Executives, surveys Washington
    employers, asking about their hiring challenges, skill gaps and training
    practices. That report is at http://www.wtb.wa.gov/Documents/Employersurvey2012-Summary.pdf

    For the past six years, the report has had the same conclusion – the biggest gap between employer needs, and the available applicant pool is at the 2-year certificate level. Aside from occupation-specific skills, the biggest gap employers have found is with good work habits.

    The pay scale for baccalaureate, masters and Ph.D. STEM workers has been flat or dropping for decades, and unemployment and underemployment for people with advanced degrees is increasing. There are many many examples showing not only that wages for STEM wrokers have been stagnant or dropping (i.e PBS’s “The Bogus High-Tech Worker Shortage” ,www.pbs.org/newshour/rundown/2013/07/the-bogus-high-tech-worker-shortage-how-guest-workers-lower-us-wages.html, etc) but also of the discrimination of the high-tech industry against qualified applicants over 35.

    Combine the above with the fact that an increasing percentage of the slots that do exist in the higher ed system are going to foreign students, not Washington tax payers’ children.

    I would suggest this needs a more nuanced approach than just give the colleges more money.

    I do agree that we need to invest in educating our children, but we need to do it in a way that helps our kids and our society, not just turn millionaires into billionaires.