This month, we inaugurated what we hope will become an annual tradition: the TechTober update with local policy and advocacy gurus Tracey Greene and Cassandra Stish. We enjoyed an informal discussion of the crucial importance of policy to the survival and growth of our local and statewide tech community.
What is public policy?
I can hear you saying “Come on, that’s easy…” but really, do we know what public policy does, in the sense of the specific direction in which government legislation and initiatives are shaping the tech scene? In the case of Virginia, whose economy depends significantly on federal money (think defense contracting), policy plays a crucial role in where money flows and thus where the economy grows.
Policy shapes our tech/innovation ecosystem in several ways. It affects the business climate, that is, the overall landscape in which businesses find themselves; it controls the legal environment (through legislation); it distributes grants and offers incentives; and it determines how state monies are spent.
What’s going on in Virginia, policy-wise?
Recent specific examples of policy-driven changes include tax credits for businesses in the city and state, incentives for STEM educators, state-funded accelerators, as well as grants for engineers and retraining programs for veterans. But given that lobbying and special interests often literally write the law to their own benefit, tech-sector-minded voters need to keep an eye on their elected officials. Take for example the rules on visas for foreign workers. Policy at the national level can influence the tech job market in your neck of the woods—visa programs can change how the state invests in its workforce. It pays to be paying attention.
What do these policies mean for me?
The tech revolution has prompted a realignment in the labor market—the demand so far exceeds the supply that all the current CS graduates couldn’t even put a dent in this deficit. That’s where the Workforce Investment Board comes in. The WIB is a state-funded, regionally-based think-tank providing leadership and direction on local strategic workforce issues. Comprised of partners in the education and business sectors, the Board identifies the needs of emerging economic sectors and then attempts to groom the workforce in favor of the the future. It’s a ‘build it and they will come’ philosophy that can work like a charm if the timing is right.
Frankly, our discussion had me seeing the local tech community in a bit of a new light: I realized that this blossoming aspect of our town, this reason-I-personally-have-a-good-job-finally phenomenon, is not only magic. It’s not just our absurd percentage of doctorates and digitalists per capita radiating a postmillennial coolness that makes it happen. Rather, it’s a combination of processes at work, processes whose proceeding is dependent on decisions made far from the nTelos Pavilion. Which means that, for better and for worse, state and national policies will be felt locally, perhaps even personally.
Tech is not just a growing industry, it’s a growing-better industry: it not only pays above-average wages, but at 10% of the job market with each worker generating 4 to 5 other ones, it fuels economic growth. It’s as close as we’ve been to an economic miracle in the last century; even the dot-com bubble couldn’t keep tech down for long. Every state and city would be happy to get in on this economic action, and so it’s essential to make an effort to ensure that growth comes their way.
What can I do?
We can become policy advocates. We should get to know our legislators and officials, even cultivating ongoing relationships with them based on a shared interest in the well-being of the community. We should define our personal and organizational positions on the issues; advocating for our positions clearly, respectfully, and mindful that they must balance policy to meet multiple needs.
There are many current proposals on the legislative agenda for the next session of the General Assembly, including: funding for broadband extension (you think CenturyLink is slow in town, try satellite in the ‘burbs); a White House initiative called TechHire to incentivize businesses and educational providers to bring people out of poverty through tech training, certifications, and employment. The first city to adopt this initiative in Virginia was Lynchburg. Subsequently, the community college system put in an application on behalf of the entire state.
Just think how our community could be improved by the reduction of poverty through tech retraining; this is not only a good in itself, it will have the positive effect of diversifying the tech world, which, although it exists practically everywhere on earth, has proven steadily impenetrable to a representative number of women, persons of color, and the poor.
Is that what all that construction is about?
On the business side, consider G0 Virginia. GO Virginia is an initiative being brought to the government from the business community; it wants to use state money to grow, as an investor, tech business. Business drives a community, and policy shapes the climate in which your livelihood can thrive or die. Which means you may have to consider both sides of the recent attempt to amend a development plan to incentivize the Deschutes Brewery to build a bottling plant in Albemarle County at the intersection of I-64 and Route 29. That zoning decision may have been about beer, but what’s to say that others won’t affect the jobs I’m interested in? Exactly.
The biggest problem we should throw some money and minds at is the workspace issue. Not only is there not enough business square-footage in the downtown area, but also what space there is is not leased in a manner that fits the needs of technology: flexibility and responsiveness to often super-fast change. Furthermore, there are specific types of workspaces that can attract and grow tech companies: collaborative spaces that are the hallmarks of tech incubators and accelerators. Tech is like the spark of life in the primordial soup—thrown the right ingredients in, the rest will take care of itself.
So far, we a few stones short of soup. But we know what to focus on: the majority of tech companies here are small, homegrown companies. Too many of our young entrepreneurs are lured to the big cities, falling for a myth about the insufficiency of capital appeal for far-flung companies. So we must focus on attracting tech transplants and on keeping our own entrepreneuses/digiteuses right here in town. Oh yeah, and we have to figure out how to get some serious fiber down this way; homebuyers used to look at the school district, but now they check for wireless coverage and high-speed internet. And in many of our beautiful places not-but-miles beyond the county line, there is none of the latter.
So what policies can make us a tech magnet?
- Establish tax zones in which business taxes could be deferred to draw start-ups.
- Offer discounts on license fees for tech businesses, hoping to draw them to our city/county.
- Design tax credits for investors in tech, investors being a more appropriate solution to the capital needs of tech companies (think angel investor versus a traditional loan at a bank).
- Offer grants. This grants are essential to local tech-focused non-profits, but are only there because of advocacy.
For example, since 2003, CBIC has given away $33,000 to students to further their STEM education! That’s what advocacy looks like: it looks like money being invested in our citizens’ improvement and our community’s enhancement. And yes, Virginia, there is a rural broadband funding bill coming back around Congress next year. The digital divide plays a large role in the economic disparity between rural and non-rural areas. Consider this fact: Virginia is ranked #2 in education, but if you remove the golden crescent (Charlottesville, NoVa, and the Tidewater), and our school system plummets to the very bottom, tied for worst with Mississippi.
At the root of this problem is the lack of connectivity. And since the free market isn’t solving this, it’s time to reclassify broadband as a utility and do for the Internet what we did for telephone wires, i.e., connect them everywhere. And then we’ll be able to talk about overhauling our curriculum to add computer science and programming at every school and on every grade level.
And then there’s our own advocacy, for women in tech. We have to refuse to settle for the last decade’s good news—if recruiters are boasting about a 20% female workforce, we need to adjust our expectations, and loudly. Then we need to go out and inspire and encourage girls to live up to them.
So keep the following info handy (bookmark, post-it, your contacts list):
How to voice your opinion
- Know your legislators. Our legislators are:
- Charlottesville City Council
- Albemarle County Board of Supervisors
- General Assembly of Virginia
- U.S. Congress
- Know your position before you call
- You will get an aide so you need to spell it out. Be clear, concise, and polite.
- Attend community events where you can meet your local and state representatives in person
- Write a letter to the editor, or the digital equivalent, a comment on an online article.
Start advocating, ladies! And see you next TechTober.