Tulsa's high-tech brain drain


Susan Hylton of the Tulsa World called Wednesday about Tulsa Now's letter to the Dialog / Visioning 2025 leadership team. My comments made her front-page article in this morning's World. (Starts here, my quote is here.) I don't remember saying (as she summarizes my 10 minute conversation with her) that the pursuit of Boeing "pushes aside" the vision process, but I did identify it as one of three factors that could derail the vision process, and that was the reason for the letter.

She did correctly reflect one of my key concerns: Aerospace manufacturing jobs won't create high-tech jobs for the WorldCom and Williams workers who lost their jobs last year. New manufacturing jobs are not to be despised -- they would help a lot of Tulsans, and the new jobs should make life better for retailers and for people trying to sell their homes. But software engineers and electrical engineers won't get jobs at the Boeing plant because they aren't qualified for that kind of work. Perhaps these laid-off engineers will be able to get jobs at Radio Shack or Best Buy, selling computers and DVD players to newly employed mechanics. Perhaps they will get a better price on their homes when they move to Plano where their new engineering jobs are.

Woo Boeing and encourage American to stay, but let's not spend so much in that pursuit that we have nothing left to make our city more attractive to high-tech employers, nothing left to encourage local entrepreneurs to stay and grow their businesses. Is it right to lay a heavy tax burden on these engineers who have been unemployed or underemployed for months, so that we can pursue jobs that they can't have?

When Joel Kotkin came to Tulsa last May, he told us that the telecom layoffs could leave us stronger than ever, if we act boldly. Here he is quoted in a column by Janet Pearson of the Tulsa World:

Tulsa has demonstrated its adaptability by rebounding from the energy bust, Kotkin noted, but its heavy reliance on telecom creates new challenges. But Tulsa can emerge from the Williams Communication Group Inc. bankruptcy crisis stronger than ever by coming up with a plan.

"You should react by saying not that the end is near, but how do we overcome it," Kotkin said. "Those in the telecom industry still have knowledge and skills. Find a way to redeploy them, either in existing companies or by starting new ones."

Tulsa should refine its ability to attract and retain well-educated and highly skilled workers or lose out to other communities with that edge, he said.

"That is the real key issue for Tulsa. . . . All the traditional ideas of economic development, particularly those used here in the Midwest, have failed. I really believe human capital will be much more important in the future, and Tulsa has much to offer in that regard."

The whole article is worth reading, and I hope our Dialog / Visioning leadership reviews its options in light of his wise words.

As far as I am aware, Tulsa's leadership has done nothing to try to stop the brain drain, to create opportunities so that we keep these talented people here in Tulsa. While local government probably can't do much directly to help, government and business leaders could work to develop venture capital funds and to set up business incubators to help people with talent and ideas create jobs. There are people in this city with a lot of money -- the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of oil patch wildcatters -- couldn't our leaders encourage them to take some of their money out of conservative investments and use it to back a high-tech "wildcatter"?

Over at Tulsa Today, David Arnett has posted a wide-ranging analysis of the vision process. He says the risk-takers have left Tulsa.

Historically, Tulsa’s entrepreneurs have stepped forward with private money to jumpstart public facilities from bridges to airports to exhibition centers. By definition, entrepreneurs are those that assume risk of an enterprise and sadly from Tulsa many major players are gone. Those in charge of our corporations today are managers, accountants, and bureaucrats who view risk with distain. Even the Board of Directors of the Tulsa Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce (Chamber) is now mostly populated by people who must plead for checks to be written rather than pull out the checkbook to write one on the spot.

The Boeing pursuit is a classic case of the traditional approach to economic development -- bribe an big company to build a plant and hope they stay around. It may be a useful stop-gap. It would be a confidence builder if it came to pass, but it is no substitute for making Oklahoma a better place to start and build a business.

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This page contains a single entry by Michael Bates published on June 20, 2003 10:52 AM.

Will the vision process be derailed? was the previous entry in this blog.

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