Welcome to the colonies.
Sorry, that’s blunt. Let’s call it something nicer, like foreign investment or the new industrial America.
But make no mistake: Whatever we call Tacoma’s new methanol plant, it’s colonization.
Colonization occurs when a country or company wants low-cost material to make high-value products back home. In the 1940s, for example, African miners sent gold to Europe where it was converted to jewelry. Now we’ll “mine” our water to create methanol for China, where it will be converted to plastics.
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How did we end up here? Why did the Pacific Century peter out in the South Sound? The answer has three parts: focus, workforce and intellectual property (IP).
Economic development is a balancing act between opportunism and focus. We can’t ignore random opportunities; they may pay off handsomely. But we also need focus, to match – or shape – our attributes with the needs of particular industries, and to build relationships and expertise in those industries.
How focused are we? The Economic Development Board (EDB), a collaboration among local governments and businesses, focuses on four economic clusters: aerospace, health services, cybersecurity and logistics/trade. With these focus areas, the EDB goes hunting.
Hunting is hard. In 2014, the EDB contacted more than 1,000 companies in aerospace and clean water technology and finally recruited a British firm to build aircraft wings in Sumner. How many jobs? Only 75. With a focused effort. No wonder the methanol plant looks good.
What would make recruitment easier? A stronger workforce for one thing. In the journal Area Development (November 2013), Mark Crawford writes, “Finding highly skilled labor is the No. 1 driver for nearly every site-selection decision.” More important than the cost of labor. More important than taxes, or land costs. Highly skilled labor.
“Highly skilled” is relative, of course, which is why focus matters. Good machinists don’t matter to software companies; heavy manufacturers don’t need game designers.
How does our workforce stack up? Do we have a highly skilled workforce for cybersecurity or clean water or medical technology, math and science industries? Probably not.
Let’s use our high schools as surrogates for workforce preparation. In 2015, U.S. News & World Report ranked 348 public high schools in Washington; the first 64 schools were individually ranked and the rest were lumped together.
The top-ranked school in Pierce County was Gig Harbor High at 41st; Franklin Pierce was 49th. All the rest are lumped together, listed alphabetically, indistinguishable from each other. Even at Tacoma’s vaunted Science & Math Institute only 51 percent of students tested as “proficient” in math. That makes us Indistinguishable. Which makes it hard to recruit.
Finally, the IP problem. IP of course stands for intellectual property – not patents necessarily, but new ideas that can become goods and services and sold for profit. A steady flow of IP drives Oregon’s Silicon Forest and the Boise boom. People thinking up things.
With all due respect to our Topias and Revalesios, we don’t have an IP pipeline. We’re not even close. We don’t have new businesses in cybersecurity or clean water technology because we can’t feed the focus with ideas.
This isn’t the Port of Tacoma’s fault. The port has 2,700 acres of industrial land to fill. It’s not labor’s fault. Union members want jobs. It’s not the EDB’s fault. It has a focus.
This is our fault, our shared responsibility, for failing to create a competitive workforce and research institutions to fill the IP pipeline. This is why we’ve became a colony, trading cheap land and raw materials for OK jobs: because we can’t create better jobs any other way.
We take what comes. We have no choice. Colonies can’t be choosers.
Ken Miller has lived in Tacoma since 1970. He's served on the Tacoma Housing Authority board and on the 2014 Charter Review Committee, among other civic activities.