Monday, October 8, 2007

Transforming the Rust Belt into a Tech Belt

My guest on Lincoln Avenue this week is Congressman Tim Ryan. We’re talking about the Tech Belt Forum that he hosted at YSU on October 1 and his vision of creating a regional network to attract investment and new ideas that will help transform the “rust belt” into a “tech belt.”

Ryan is working with Pennsylvania Representative Jason Altmire on this project, making it the latest addition to an emerging array of regional projects. While some in the local community worry about maintaining local identities – and local control, it seems that we – as a region and locally -- have more to gain by cooperating than by focusing on competition. As Ryan notes in our interview, despite some historical divisions, our region faces some similar challenges and opportunities. And when it comes to securing funding, foundations and investors are likely to believe that their investment will go farther if it serves a whole region rather than just one locality.

Ryan also talks about the need for new approaches to education in order to prepare this area’s young people for new kinds of jobs. As a region, we have relatively few adults with college degrees, and if we are to build a high-tech economy, we will need to improve the quality and quantity of education that our children have. Ryan cites the robotics program at Warren Harding High School and the new health care magnet school that the Youngstown City Schools have established at Choffin as examples of programs that are taking new, more hands-on approaches to engaging young people in science. We didn’t get the chance to discuss “No Child Left Behind,” but it’s clear that Ryan sees the need for new policies and priorities in public education. I agree. Unless we change the way we approach education, we won’t be able to improve our education rates in this Valley.

After having several conversations with local leaders about efforts to support the development of a technology economy in northeastern Ohio, I’m still somewhat skeptical about whether this is enough. Even if we were able to add 1000 new jobs in technology industries, we would still have thousands more workers who have been left behind by manufacturing and who don’t have the training to more into high-tech jobs. Building a technology economy will certainly help, but we need more – more training, more protections for workers, more small businesses, more education.

You can share your thoughts about the Tech Belt concept here, by posting a comment, or you can write directly to Ryan.

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