Industry Voices—Benson: High tech job growth and unintended consequences

smart city
Smart tech cities can be in the Heartland or on either U.S. coast, but cities and industries need to plan better to avoid traffic congestion and high housing costs no matter where the growth is funneled. (Getty Images)
Duane Benson Industry Voices
In 2020, a crucial economic topic is the declining quality of life in cities with booming job growth. Does this sound counterintuitive? Well, read on. The most notable examples would be tech centers like San Francisco, Seattle, Boston and fellow cities with the highest job growth rates. These metropolitan areas are clearly suffering from the consequences of outgrowing their infrastructure: extreme traffic congestion and skyrocketing housing costs.

Not long ago, I was asked to weigh in on the idea of using government funding to create regional job growth centers in the heartland of the US: “Hate the Valley? Imagine if tech jobs headed to the heartland.” The premise of this proposal is to use government investment to encourage job growth in the heartland—to “spread the wealth” beyond the select, primarily coastal regions that are home to the lion’s share of today’s high-tech growth and subsequent profits. At first blush, that doesn’t sound so bad, does it?

When Portland got put on the map

I live and work near Portland, Oregon, an area that has experienced solid tech job growth in recent years yet is not in the top tier of tech growth. Before tech came to town, Portland was little more than a quiet timber industry-fueled rest stop on Interstate 5 between San Francisco and Seattle.

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Today, we’re a good second-tier tech city. In fact, we’re number 7 on a list of regions ripe for investment, according to the Brookings and ITIF report referenced in the FierceElectronics article above, and we already have gridlock on the roads, a lack of affordable housing and an urban growth plan that doesn’t seem to take either of those issues seriously. Portland is a good example of what happens when a smaller area experiences growth more quickly than its infrastructure can handle.

When life turns into one long commute

Reliable, high paying jobs are nice to have around, and a growing tech sector can certainly provide them. But, as we’ve seen in other high-tech urban centers, too much growth too quickly can exact a high toll on quality of life. Creating jobs in second tier cities without first solving these problems will simply increase the unlivability of cities across the country that are suffering from outdated infrastructure and lagging municipal regulations.

Job creation puts more people on the roads. That traffic is compounded by the additional trucks that come in to feed the industry supply chain. And there’s a generational dynamic feeding the congestion, too. If the Baby Boomers were all about homes in the suburbs and the Gen-X'ers were about moving to a revitalized downtown, I would say that millennials are about individual choice in where to live and spread themselves equally between urban and suburban living. That means we not only have more people commuting, we have more congestion going in both directions. The easy “reverse commute” for people who live in the core area and work outside the city is turning into just as much a slog.

Clean and fast public transportation is an important part of the solution, but if someone trades a 90-minute car commute for a 90-minute light rail or bus ride with three transfers, their quality of life is not improved, even if it eases traffic congestion. And if it takes half a decade or more of disruptive rail construction, a lot of folks lose even more.

The fight for affordable housing

When I moved to Portland from a rural area in Washington state, I did so because it had the amenities of a city, was very affordable and getting around was easy. The technology boom did allow more tech-oriented locals to stay in the Portland area and still meet their career aspirations, but it also brought an influx of new residents, like myself. When the techies moved to escape overgrowth from wealthy areas like Seattle and San Francisco, they came with a large bankroll which helped drive up housing prices and the cost of living.

While the outsiders brought with them a much-needed brain trust, further fueling the tech industry, the area’s infrastructure has struggled to keep up, leading to the same quality of life challenges that lead people to leave the big cities. If the economists think a tech boom in Madison, Wisconsin, won’t result in a parallel boom of congestion and housing availability and affordability problems, and the accompanying erosion of the relaxed Midwestern lifestyle, one only needs to take a look at once-sleepy Portland to see the flaws in that assumption.

Cities must plan for a tech-oriented future

These problems are not unsolvable, but there needs to be a combined commitment from involved city governments, tech companies and employees to effect real change. While I support spreading the wealth of the tech industry to the heartland to create new jobs in the Midwest, I firmly believe that these cities must be realistic about the enormous changes that come along with massive growth and the influx of tech money.

There are many cities in the United States that could use a revitalization of industry, and tech is a huge opportunity for these regions. However, these cities must put a strategic plan into place before they allow tech to swoop in and clog roads, push people out of their affordable housing and completely transform the existing way of life.

City governments must map out effective, environmentally-friendly public transportation; they must make a plan to create enough affordable housing that will accommodate new tech employees as well as long-time residents who may no longer be able to afford increasing living costs; and they must ensure that the urban and suburban infrastructure is up to date to accommodate traffic, parking and people.

Duane Benson is the Director of Marketing for Milwaukee Electronics and Screaming Circuits, with 30 years in the tech industry, from software development and embedded design to product management and marketing. Follow Duane on Twitter: @duanebenson and LinkedIn  .

“Industry Voices” are opinion columns written by outside contributors—often industry experts or analysts—who are invited to the conversation by Fierce staff. They do not represent the opinions of Fierce.

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