Will tech-heavy labor force lead to technology economy?

The greater Tri-Cities enjoys a strong technology pulse, but the most readily accessible statistics are scant on the evidence. Brenton-Franklin Trends data, for instance, doesn’t carry one “technology” indicator out of the 175 available. This state of our knowledge is largely due to the difficulties in measuring the economic impact of technology.

Increasingly, the absence of technology-specific measures is due to how embedded technology has become over a broad array of industries of the U.S. economy. Benton and Franklin counties are no different. With a few notable exceptions, such as the computer hardware and software industries, biotechnology companies and engineering firms, industry data is not particularly helpful.

Occupational numbers, however, can shed some light. These are widely available in Washington state via a classification developed by labor economists known as Standard Occupational Codes, or SOC. The data is developed and maintained by the state Employment Security Department, or ESD labor economists. As you might imagine for an economy as diverse and complex as ours, the number of SOC entries runs into the high hundreds at a common level of aggregation (four-digit). For the greater Tri-Cities, the number of entries is nearly 800 at that level.

A new data offering, which Eastern Washington University’s Institute for Public Policy & Economic Analysis has contributed to, adopts the occupational approach. The tool is the Vitals from the Institute of the Association of Washington Business, or AWB. (Its current chairman is a Tri-Citian, retired Pacific Northwest National Laboratory executive Mike Schwenk.) The Vitals consists of 33 indicators for all 39 counties in the state, or in the case of this indicator, all metropolitan statistical areas, or MSAs.

In particular, the Vitals’ measure of technology is the number of jobs found in STEM fields. A few definitions of science, technology, engineering and math fields exist; the Vitals adopted one used by the U.S. Department of Labor. This notion of STEM covers about 100 occupations, which the institute has aggregated and then calculated an intensity, or ratio, to allow comparisons among the MSAs of the state. The accompanying map from the Vitals highlights the results for this area. Notably, the Vitals definition excludes health care occupations.

What do the Vitals show about the current breadth of Tri-City STEM jobs? As the map reveals, the Tri-Cities can point to about six jobs out of every 100 in 2019 that are attributable to these occupations. This places it highest among Eastern Washington metro areas, but lower than the Seattle-Tacoma-Bellevue MSA, which boasted a STEM intensity double that of the Tri-Cities, and the Portland-Vancouver-Hillsboro MSA, an economy that clocked a STEM intensity about 50% higher than here. Furthermore, the Olympia-Tumwater MSA showed a higher STEM ratio approximately 50% higher.

What lies behind the STEM, or technology occupations, in the greater Tri-Cities? It should come as no surprise that engineers drive the numbers. In 2019, they amounted to more than 4,300, with half holding specialties in civil and environmental engineering. Rounding out the top five specialties were, in order: nuclear, mechanical and electrical. In total, the number of engineers implies that more than three out of every 100 workers in this labor market holds this occupation.

The next largest supplier of STEM occupations comes from computing. That number might surprise, since most of us don’t think of the Tri-Cities as a mini Redmond. In 2019, the number of computer-related jobs reached nearly 2,000. The largest specialty among computer workers was systems analysts, followed by support specialists, then software developers of applications.

The third largest contributor to STEM jobs here is thanks to scientists. In 2019, the Tri-Cities could point to nearly 1,800 scientists. That is a remarkable concentration and can undoubtedly be attributed to PNNL. Of those scientists, most were in the physical disciplines, as opposed to life science. Besides physicists and chemists, the science specialties here encompass atmospheric and space, materials, environmental and geology. Add in a few dozen hydrologists and it’s quite a mix.

The two other occupational groups holding significant STEM positions here are management — especially in engineering and the sciences — and the technicians who work alongside scientists.

All told, occupational data from ESD for 2019 indicate about 7,500 workers could be classified as STEM or technology workers. Why does this matter? For one, their presence has helped elevate incomes here. As Trends data shows, median household income in 2018 was nearly $65,000, far above the levels of other Eastern Washington MSAs and higher than the U.S. median.

With this large a share of the local workforce in technology (STEM) fields, the raw material for a technology-led economy is at hand. Now, can we find some entrepreneurs, STEM-trained or not, who want to tap into this large talent pool?

D. Patrick Jones is the executive director for Eastern Washington University’s Institute for Public Policy & Economic Analysis. Benton-Franklin Trends, the institute’s project, uses local, state and federal data to measure the local economic, educational and civic life of Benton and Franklin counties.


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