Last week, a longtime University of Texas—San Antonio tech staffer stopped by my classroom to say goodbye. She announced that she was leaving UTSA for a better job with much better pay. In the tech sector. With a private employer. In Austin.
Her story is by no means unique. A number of tech folks have left recently for better jobs in Austin. It’s a situation that many local commentators and business leaders have long observed. But as we consider the kind of San Antonio we want to build over the next decade with new mayoral leadership, it’s vital that we think about where we stand in terms of high tech employment, and why we keep losing valued folks to Austin.
Let’s start with the “jobs” part. A December 2012 report by the Bay Area Council Economic Institute compared metro areas in terms of high tech employment. Not surprisingly, the San Jose-Sunnyvale, Calif., metro—the home of Silicon Valley—ranked number one in high tech jobs as a percentage of the overall market, at 28.8 percent. The Cambridge, Mass., area came in at number four, with 20.3 percent, immediately followed by metro Seattle at 18.2. And Austin, the top Texas metro area, made the list at number 14, with 10.7 percent of its overall employment in high tech for a total of more than 67,000 jobs.
As for San Antonio, we placed number 56, with just 5 percent of our employment in high tech for 34,200 jobs—half of Austin’s total. We’re behind Dallas at number 20, and Houston ranked 45th. That employment picture puts us even with Detroit and Anchorage, and a bit ahead of Kansas City.
In August 1982, San Antonio mayor Henry Cisneros unveiled his so-called Orange Book: “San Antonio’s Place in the Technology Environment: A Review of Opportunities and a Blueprint for Action.” There was indeed action. Cisneros and the Economic Development Foundation traveled widely to California and Asia in search of new employers and succeeded in bringing some to town. But most of those new high tech employers, such as chipmaker VLSI (later Phillips Semiconductor), didn’t stick. And even some homegrown firms, notably Datapoint, found they couldn’t manage the dramatic pace of innovation and change. The constant evolution of the tech sector also makes it risky to rely on a successful local firm like Rackspace as the lone vehicle for achieving future job growth and success. However valuable Rackspace may be to San Antonio today, examples of how quickly and dramatically the situation of individual firms can and will change can be see in Compaq in Houston and Dell in Austin.
The difference between Austin and us isn’t some grand geographical endowment, beaches or mountains. It’s not the climate or water supply or available land. Simply put, it’s the nature of our respective labor forces. In a globally competitive environment, the cities and metro areas that succeed are those with the best educated populations. That’s where San Antonio falls behind Austin, and a host of other areas.
Among the 100 largest metropolitan areas as of 2010, Washington, DC, leads the list with the highest proportion of its population holding college degrees at 46.8 percent. Next comes the San Jose metro and Silicon Valley with 45.3 percent. San Francisco ranks fourth, right behind the Connecticut suburban cities of Stamford and Greenwich, followed by Madison, Wis., and Boston. Austin places eighth at 39.4 percent, just above Denver, Minneapolis and Seattle. Dallas comes in at 35th, about on par with the Los Angeles metro area. And San Antonio? We rank number 80 of the 100, just below Greensboro, N.C., and just above Memphis.
But, some might argue, aren’t we getting better? Hasn’t our college educated population grown in recent years? The answer to that is indeed yes. Our percentage of college-educated adults has grown by just over 15 percent since 1970. Still, where we’ve done better as a community, the metros at the top of the list have grown even faster, leaving San Antonio far behind.
Why is the community’s overall level of education important? Well-educated communities offer the greatest job opportunities and the greatest possibilities for advancement all across the education spectrum. As Alan Berube of the Brookings Institution put it in May 2012, “A mixture of powerful economic phenomena are boosting the value of living around other college graduates … Living in a highly educated metro area boosts one’s own acquisition of human capital and earning power, and leads to better employment outcomes for workers across the education spectrum.”
Far more than investing in the quest for more visitors or a “decade of downtown,” education needs to be at the top of the next mayor’s “six point program.” That focus on education needs to be embraced by the city council, the county judge and commissioner’s court. And it needs to be kept as a top public priority year after year. Mayor Castro made some real strides in a community-wide education focus, with his Café College initiative and the Pre-K for SA program. Our next mayor needs to build on those, in a far broader and more comprehensive scope, covering everything from efforts to reduce our dropout rates to keeping teen mothers in school and easing the pathways from high school to community college and universities. Such an effort need not require a significant tax increase or some new initiative similar to Pre-K. Rather, the new mayor has a unique opportunity to advocate the importance of investing in educating all San Antonians. We can’t afford to stay at number 80.