Monday, October 1, 2007

Is technology the answer?

This week on Lincoln Avenue, my guest is Chris Mather, the Director of TechLift, a new project that provides support for developing hi-tech businesses in northeastern Ohio. Chris was in town for a kick-off event to introduce the project’s goals and services to local business people.

TechLift is one of several projects aimed at transforming this region from an area known for heavy industry, especially steel and auto manufacturing, into an area known for creative technical innovations. Chris hopes to accomplish that by mentoring business developers, helping them secure funding, and helping them connect with suppliers, staff, collaborators, and clients.

As Chris notes during the interview, many of the areas around the country that have successfully put technology at the center of their economies have been able to draw on the expertise and support of major research universities. Here in northeast Ohio, we bring a different legacy to technology development. While relatively few people in the region have college degrees, we have a long history of making both raw materials and machinery, and those are two of the five areas of focus for TechLift: advanced materials (meaning specialty metals, among other things) and electronics (including instruments and controls). Both of these are also areas of technology development that bring both specialized jobs for highly-trained professional staff and at least some jobs for more ordinary workers.

As with other projects focused on technology development, TechLift seems like a worthwhile project that will contribute to the region’s economic growth. Yet I think we should be wary of looking to technology as the savior for the Mahoning Valley. Can we develop new technology-based businesses in this area? Yes. Will such businesses provide jobs for the majority area workers who don’t have specialized training? No. Such companies will contribute to the local economy, and we should welcome them. But they are not, in and of themselves, enough for us to have a secure economic future. Too many area residents will still be left under- and unemployed, or working in fields that are steadily shrinking. These new businesses will help, but repairing the local economy will also require that more of our young people take education seriously and that we encourage the development of many kinds of businesses. We also have to work to ensure that the jobs created here pay well, have decent benefits and safe working conditions, and that the profits, as much as possible, feed back into this community.

What do you think? Where do you see hope for the local economy and our community’s future?

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