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.
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.
This 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.