The current political climate in D.C. is a mess — and Olympia has its own troubles with a court mandate to boost school funding and no easy means for doing so.
But Michael Schutzler, CEO of the Washington Technology Industry Association (WTIA), says that’s no reason to despair. And this week he’s visiting the U.S. capitol with roughly a dozen of the state’s tech leaders to meet with members of congress and other government officials.
“The bottom-line on all of this is that in chaos there is profit,” Schutzler said. “But it requires you to be extremely nimble, and our industry is very good at being nimble.”
While there are numerous policy proposals and executive actions that are causing concern — the attempted immigration ban, the scuttling of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and rumblings about changes to the H-1B visa program, as Schutzler pointed out in this guest column earlier this month — there are also measures locally and nationally that could bode well for technology. That includes support for STEM education in K-12 and the University of Washington, worker retraining programs and the potential for movement on a visa for foreign entrepreneurs.
Much, however, continues to be uncertain as the political turmoil keeps churning.
Take, for example, the announcement Wednesday that President Trump’s nominee for labor secretary had withdrawn his nomination when his confirmation became increasingly unlikely.
Department of Labor leadership could affect tech worker training, including the WTIA Workforce Institute’s Apprenti program, which launched in September. The program initially landed $3.5 million in federal and state funding, and then was awarded an additional $7.5 million contract from the DOL to expand nationally. Apprenti focuses primarily on trainees who are women, minorities or military veterans.
“There is no way of knowing if those funds will continue,” Schutzler said. But the program is a great investment, he said, with the $11 million in grants ultimately delivering an estimated $1 billion in payroll.
DOL gave us a contract, he said. “Let us finish what we’ve started.”
Dave Parker is CEO of Code Fellows, which also provides training for technology careers, and joined Schutzler on the D.C. trip. He hopes that the attention to job creation during the election will translate into meaningful support for the tech industry.
“Job creation is done by companies and not by governments,” he said. “The growth in jobs come from young companies starting and growing and scaling.”
Actions that support startups could include expanding H-1B visas for highly-trained tech workers, fewer labor and export regulations, and tax breaks for businesses. Schutzler wonders if having GOP leadership in all branches of the U.S. government could lead to long-awaited action on EB6 visas for entrepreneurs.
When Trump won, “it became obvious that everything is going to change, and in that chaos is an opportunity to have an influence for the benefit of Washington,” he said.
But it has to be done thoughtfully. With business-friendly changes to regulations and taxes, “there will be economic growth that comes out,” Schutzler said. “But if it goes too far, it will be mayhem.”
For their part, elected leaders in the nation’s and the state capitol say they’re working on a variety of measures to assist the tech sector.
Congresswoman Suzan DelBene, a western-Washington Democrat, is among those meeting with the tech leaders this week. She’s a co-sponsor of legislation that would prevent the creation of a national religious registry that could potentially be used to track Muslim workers.
Companies including Expedia, Amazon, Microsoft, Google and others have been critical of Trump’s executive order restricting immigration from seven predominantly Muslim countries. The Ninth Circuit unanimously blocked the order.
DelBene, concerned that Trump promoted the registry idea during his campaign and could pursue its creation, has included language in the bill that specifically relates to the tech community.
“A lot of folks from the tech industry spoke out about how they would not participate in the creation of such a registry,” DelBene said, so the legislation states that third parties, such as employers, would not be required to submit names.
DelBene likewise is a proponent of more funding for STEM education and training.
“We need to have a conversation about the jobs that are there today and how tech and innovation are impacting jobs in the future, and making sure we’re preparing people,” she said.
State leaders are also seeking more funding in this area — and are hopeful they’ll get it.
“We have invested in college degree programs where the business community is demanding trained graduates,” said Rep. Drew Hansen, a Democrat from the Kitsap Peninsula and chair of the House Higher Education Committee.
“One of my top priorities is expanding the UW computer science program so that it’s at full capacity,” he said. “Every one of those graduates gets a great job at companies like Microsoft and Tableau and Google and more.”
Schutzler is also focused on higher education funding in Washington, but also weighing in on issues including cyber security, privacy, drone regulations, non-compete employment agreements, family medical leave, reinstating the R&D tax credit and capital gains taxes.
“We represent 9,000 companies in the state, and have almost 1,000 members,” he said. “We get involved in every aspect [of technology].”
While the federal government is dominated by the Republican party, in Washington the House has a Democrat majority and the Senate is GOP led. Officials in Olympia say the bipartisanship there is less rancorous than in its national counterpart.
If you’re being “solutions oriented and pragmatic, you can work across party lines to help people get through college and get degrees to help their families,” Hansen said.
Progress in D.C. is anyone’s guess.
“With the administration, it’s hard to know. The president has not talked about tech and what he’s going to do there,” said DelBene, but she hopes Congress can make some headway, and so do tech leaders from the Northwest.
“We’ll try to make the most out of the lemons we’ve been given,” Schutzler said, “and maybe we’ll make some lovely lemonade.”