This column was published in “The Raleigh News & Observer” August 4, 2013
Here we don’t go again. Sure, the Research Triangle is a technology hub, but North Carolina households rank last in the nation in having adequate high-speed access to the Internet. A sorry 17 percent have what most of us in this area regard as a utility as important as the water we drink. This compares to a national average of 45 percent.
Shame on us.
During the latter half of the 20th Century we were led by people like Bill Friday, Luther Hodges, Jim Hunt and, not to play favorites, Jim Holshouser and Jim Martin. They all saw that the key to raising the economic tide in North Carolina lay in developing better education for young people while embracing and promoting new technologies.
They were on target, and the needle moved in the right direction. Over the past decade, however, we have seen hapless, sometimes corrupt Democrats ceding power to Jim Crow Democrats in Republican clothing. The result: our state may still be “First in Flight,” but we are again trending towards last in everything else. That is, unless you’d like to include firsts in expunging voting and women’s rights.
But being “connected” is not a political issue. It’s a survival issue. If innovation is the impetus for adaptive change—and it has been for all of human history—how do we expect to move forward with only 17 of a hundred crewmembers rowing the boat?
Not much of consequence happens in this world—including love and death—that isn’t facilitated, recorded or protected digitally. Economic, political, social and educational gains depend on networked bits of data, as do every nation’s stability and security.
Even in the Triangle, for every SAS or Red Hat there are three Nortels, IBMs and Sony-Ericssons—all of which have either disappeared or cut to the bone their presence (reductions in IBM employment here are now a closely held secret). Cisco’s CEO prophesized in 2010 that the Triangle would be home to his East Cost headquarters and employ 10,000. This March, the networking giant laid off nearly 500 of its estimated 4,800 employees in the Triangle, about 7 percent of a 7,000-person global “reorganization” over past two years. Another Rapture delayed.
Recent technology “wins” for the state, Facebook and Apple data centers totaling $1.5 billion in capital investment, have netted fewer than 100 full-time jobs. Hardly what you’d call bang for the buck.
And what location did Google and Twitter choose for their East Coast headquarters? That high-tax, high-labor-cost den of iniquity—New York City. It’s not low taxes or state incentives that lure high-paying jobs to a location. It’s the talent pool.
Regarding this, there’s good news and bad news. On the plus side, the National Center for Educational Statistics reports that North Carolina ranks fourth in what it calls “Brain Gain”—that is, the number of college graduates moving to a state minus the number leaving. The bad news? This ranking shows we are not graduating enough North Carolinians to fill the jobs that pay best. And even a cursory review of the people who have engineered successful Triangle startups—Quintiles, SmartPath and SciQuest come to mind—reveals that most (Salisbury aside, Mr. Goodnight) “ain’t from around here.”
I think it’s fair to say that there is a causative rather than correlative relation between lack of access to meaningful technology and this shortfall in homegrown talent. Children in homes where Jerry Springer and Grand Theft Auto are more common than a Google search for “microprocessor” will not create the next big thing.
More likely, they will repeat the cycle of ignorance, underemployment and poverty that everybody—right, center and left—chooses either to ignore or to exploit in North Carolina.