The WTIA’s initiative that formed the Information Technology Coalition in 2012 had its first Olympia Day last month. Several of our IT tech leaders headed to the state Capitol for a twelve hour day of meetings with legislators and with Washington’s new CIO Michael Cockrill (fantastic appointment by Governor Inslee!). Companies represented in this excursion included Amazonand Microsoft (big), Synapse Product Development and Vertafore (mid-market), Hidden Path andNiviera (small), as well as Legicrawler and Herres Consulting. We were delighted to have leadership from these diverse companies, along with the WTIA and the Technology Alliance, in meetings with state legislators. It gave the legislators the opportunity to hear directly the impact that the talent gap had on each company’s ability to develop product and plan for expansion; as well as the benefit of the R&D tax credits to their operations, which is effectively to be able to hire more tech talent.
The trip was noteworthy because it’s one of the first small steps in getting the state’s IT sector leadership directly engaged in advocacy. Politics as a “contact sport” is a cliché we haven’t had to experience. With some notable exceptions, the IT sector has largely stayed out of the public policy arena in WA. By contrast, the aerospace and biotech sectors have done a fantastic job at being present with both leadership and money to advocate for their constituents. For example, the WBBA held its own Olympia Day in January and drew 40 biotech CEOs to Olympia. They were also met by Governor Inslee for a 25 minute discussion on important policy for the sector. This turn-out is the result of years of focused effort from the biotech sector to be heard by our lawmakers. We applaud the great work that Chris Rivera and his team have done for WA’s biotech industry and are delighted that many of our own policy agenda items match those of the WBBA as well as the Technology Alliance’s. It is also significant that WBBA has a $50K-$60K political action committee that helps the life sciences industry increase its influence. Our own PAC is modest in comparison. Both biotech and aerospace have made a serious long term commitment to policy and political influence. The IT industry needs the same commitment.
Why advocacy matters has a national if not global context. For IT we have been late to the policy advocacy effort partly because we’re effectively unregulated and our labor pool is not unionized. These characteristics, along with the relatively young status of our sector as a whole, have kept us heads down building some of the world’s leading tech companies. The talent pool shortage that’s now painfully pervasive in all size IT companies, has begun to shift the interest that companies have in long term solutions to the talent gap (i.e. quality STEM education) and the need to provide a healthy competitive environment for continued innovation (i.e. R&D and other tax incentives).
It’s unfortunate that our state government is looking at quality education and economic development incentives as trade-offs for each other as they attempt to close the budget gap. More unfortunate will be if tech itself begins to accept this one-pays-for-the-other policy as the underlying presumption of how to solve educational funding gaps. There is no question that our state has intense budgetary pressures but making the environment less attractive to tech companies has long term consequences.
Every day we read about other states’ initiatives to attract tech companies. For example, Maryland is considering tripling its R&D tax credit. The list of state initiatives to develop centers of innovation is exhaustive but the message is the same–these states are hungry to have what Washington has had for 30 years. The recipe for the secret sauce to make this happen is no longer a secret.
Losing tech job growth here is not something that will happen in the future. It’s happening now. The WTIA frequently hears from its member companies the decisions they have made to expand in other states—50 jobs, 400 jobs, 1,200 jobs. Reluctantly these companies have concluded that they cannot expand in Washington. The decisions are not accompanied by corporate headquarter relocations or union protests so they don’t hit the media. Rather, it’s a quiet slipping away of digital jobs to other places that are not so quietly wooing these companies’ expansion plans away from us.
What to do? The IT sector must engage in the public policy advocacy arena. At one of our final meetings on Olympia Day, a Senator from Puget Sound stated the IT sector’s legislative influence predicament pretty bluntly: “You’re not feared.” His response to, “What should we do?” was equally blunt: “Have leadership show up in Olympia and talk directly to legislators and raise money to reward those legislators that represent your interests.” This is what every group soliciting support for their constituents has been doing, some for more than 100 years.
It’s the IT sector’s time to get on the band wagon and have a clear voice for best policy to keep Washington’s biggest economic contributor thriving as the competition for innovation leadership unfolds. The WTIA supports these initiatives because we love Washington’s create drive, its entrepreneurs and all the people the IT sector so robustly supports with direct and indirect jobs, and we believe the state should consciously envision its future as one of the leading innovation centers in the world. Talent, passion, and collaboration manifested in public and private alignment for a shared objective is the key to Washington’s future.
As the WTIA policy efforts move forward on the advocacy front, we are also moving full steam on short term initiatives through our Workforce Development Committee led by Tayloe Washburn and through our events. Check out TalentLink on March 26th.
The WTIA would love to have every IT company in Washington engage in the pursuit of good public policy and we’re organized to do it. Please consider getting involved in the Information Technology Coalition by contacting me at email@example.com, saying yes to the next Olympia Day, and/or giving a contribution to techPAC. Your support is greatly appreciated.