As Seattleites, we can proudly say we have an awesome city for innovation. Our companies, our tech sector’s goods and services, and our lifestyle are coveted the world over. But we have a major problem brewing when it comes to our region’s competitive advantage in the new innovation economy: a talent deficiency.
We need to get serious about our talent pool, and fast. We have fantastic talent here, but we don’t have nearly enough of it to keep up with the economic engine we’ve created. Contrary to lackluster job creation reports, there are hundreds, if not thousands of unfilled jobs locally that are creating significant headwinds for Washington’s economic growth. The emerging economy is heavily dependent on innovation and has created a huge gap between available positions and the skills needed to fill them. The demand for this talent is immediate, and the lack of quality talent is especially constraining for small businesses, which make up the majority of our state’s enterprises and have limited resources to recruit and acquire talent from afar.
Seattle’s future prosperity depends on our being able to meet today’s demand for talent. We are at the threshold of an inflection point as Asia’s percentage of global GDP moves from approximately 25 percent to almost 50 percent in the next 10 to 15 years. We have to recognize the gravitational magnitude of its need for innovative thinking and the impact on our city. As Asia’s demand for innovation resources increases, Seattle will be in the forefront as an exporter of technology goods and services, and also will be sought out for its skilled talent. Innovation-based work can be done anywhere with the appropriate infrastructure and creative cultural elements. If we fail to act now and prepare to meet this demand, our current talent will end up as a recruiting pool for some other region, domestic or foreign, that recognizes and invests in recruiting and retaining these talented individuals.
Many have suggested that we simply increase taxes to better fund the K-12 STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) curriculum and implement differential tuition—charging some students more then others—at the state’s universities. The goal is to graduate twice as many students with science and engineering degrees and locally cultivate the talent needed. While it’s imperative we do this as good stewards of our children’s education, our city’s innovation capital heavily depends on industry-experienced talent—and this bolus of students will come at least a decade too late.
Infrastructure and culture investments provide fertile ground for our current and future talent to do their best work. There must be more collaboration between the public and private sectors to fund infrastructure initiatives like world-class broadband, which would improve local communications and increase our ability to access and share knowledge. We need additional economic initiatives like the Sustainable Aviation Fuels Northwest (SAFN) consortium, which leverages our state’s strengths and collectively focuses our region’s mutual interests on a future worldwide need. A clear, noble cause is inspiration for an innovative culture. To this point, it is important to increase our state’s allocation to the Life Science Discovery Fund (LSDF), which would bolster our entrepreneurial strength in domestic and global health and help fund early innovative work not commercially ready for venture or corporate support. Rapid transit growth must also be accelerated as less painful commutes within the region improve the productivity of knowledge economy workers and our quality of life.
The bottom line is that in order to keep our position as a world-class city for innovation, we need top-notch industry talent—NOW! For me, as the leader of a business that has a continual need to hire the type of talent outlined here, this issue is front and center on a daily, if not hourly, basis. This talent has to have current and relevant applied technical skills with a proven track record for visualizing innovative outcomes and executing collaboratively with peers. In order to get the talent our city needs, we have to work together. From public works and infrastructure to bolstering education at all levels, this is an issue we cannot afford to ignore any longer.
SEAN MACLEOD is president of Seattle-based Stratos Product Development.