Rob Christensen

Where Raleigh ranks among the nation’s tech hubs, and what that means

The downtown Raleigh skyline is seen from South Saunders Street in Raleigh, on Sunday, December 27, 2015.
The downtown Raleigh skyline is seen from South Saunders Street in Raleigh, on Sunday, December 27, 2015. File photo

Raleigh, one of the nation’s fastest growing cities, does not have a port or a large railroad switching yard, does not straddle an important river, and did not grow from the stock yards.

But Raleigh does have one powerful factor going for it – it is one of the most digitalized metro areas in the country.

Only California’s famed Silicon Valley and the Boston area with its Harvard-MIT Route 128 high-tech corridor scored higher on the digital scale, according to a study released Wednesday by the Brookings Institution, a Washington-based think tank. (Several metro areas tied with Raleigh.)

Scoring so high on high-tech almost certainly reflects the presence of the Triangle’s major universities as well as such tech companies as SAS Institute, Cisco Systems, Red Hat, IBM, Citrix and Lenovo.

This puts Raleigh in the vanguard of what some call the Third Industrial Revolution, as Michael Walden, an N.C. State University professor notes in his new book, North Carolina Beyond the Connected Age.

The first industrial revolution in the late 18th century and the early 19th century involved steam engines, iron works and new machine tools. The second industrial revolution, Walden notes, spanned from the mid-19th century to the mid-20th century and involved the development of electricity, mechanized ground transportation, air flight and radio and television.

The ongoing third industrial revolution has been the internet age in which computers, smartphones and the worldwide web have given us new ability to analyze information and has expanded global communication and knowledge.

What that means is the the Raleigh metro area has the kind of workforce to be a place where the new economy prospers. And that means it also tends to attract higher paying jobs – not only jobs requiring college degrees but jobs for well-trained IT workers who may not need a degree.

The Brookings study, Digitalization and The American Workforce, sought to measure the impact of digital technology on the workplace and the economy.

It found, not surprisingly, that it is not just software application developers, computer hardware engineers and system developers who must master digital technology.

“Nurses work like scientists, using portable vein finders for blood tests, while auto mechanics employ laptops to troubleshoot cars, and salespeople rely on cloud-based, artificially intelligent software agents like Siri and Alexa to schedule meetings,” the report said.

Many employers will only accept job applications made online.

Computers have reoriented American life and the workplace. Places where there are large workforces that are tech literate will prosper, and those that lag in technology will fall further behind.

“The unevenness of digitalization across occupations and industries is important because digitalization influences pay, job durability and growth,” the report said.

There are disparities in the high-tech economy. Whites and Asian-Americans are strongly represented in tech jobs; African-Americans and Latinos lag behind.

Outside the Triangle, North Carolina’s technology growth has been unexceptional. Walden said the most promising strategy is to extend the technology corridor along the Interstate 85 corridor, connecting the Triangle with the Triad and the Charlotte metro areas – areas with large numbers of colleges and universities.

The Brookings report suggests that states and communities expand the pipeline of IT talent by increasing company-sponsored training, enriching computer science education in the schools, and expanding computer literacy among underrepresented groups.

North Carolina is off to a good start, the Brookings report said, with its Microsoft Imagine Academy. That program offers subscriptions to all 628 Tar Heel high schools to enable students to earn certification as either Microsoft Office specialist or Microsoft technical associate to help them prepare for the job market. The program, started in 2010 and sponsored by Microsoft and the state Department of Public Instruction, had led to 300,000 students being certified.

As Walden notes, the technology industry is not tied to a physical location like the textile mills that were located near streams and the cotton fields. That means that places like Raleigh must continue to find ways of “attracting and keeping innovative and creative scientists and entrepreneurs” if it wants remain a tech leader.

Rob Christensen: 919-829-4532, robc@newsobserver.com

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