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Work force lacks skills for high-tech jobs

August 02, 1999|By BRENDAN KIRBY

Tucked away in a small office just outside of Hagerstown, Alex Kogon hopes to one day produce tools that aid in the diagnosis of cancer.

It is exactly the kind of enterprise Washington County officials say they want to attract: high-tech, bio-medical businesses.

Kogon, a Ph.D. who lives in Frederick, Md., said he was attracted to Washington County by low rent and available laboratory space offered by the Technical Innovation Center, a business incubator program at Hagerstown Community College.

If he can get the grants to make Biolinx LLC go, he said, he probably would move closer to Hagerstown.

And while he is confident he could find the two assistants with the required education he needs, the county does not offer the volume of employees with advanced research degrees to supply a larger company.

"This is one of the main reasons that big companies like that don't come to places like Hagerstown," he said. "They don't want to relocate so many people. They want to hire local people."

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As economic development officials work to land the kinds of companies that pay high salaries in the new economy, they run into one of the county's biggest drawbacks, according to national experts.

"Everybody wants higher-paying jobs. The question is, do you have the skill base to support them?" said Kate McEnroe, a Georgia-based consultant who scouts new locations for companies.

In Washington County, the answer is probably not - or at best, not yet, according to national experts who have studied the region and local business leaders.

One report in 1996 put it very bluntly.

"Educational attainment levels and anecdotal evidence suggest that the current worker base is not the kind sought after by technology and knowledge-based industries," said the report by Deliotte & Touche Fantus Consulting, which analyzed the county's work force as part of a study on the redevelopment of Fort Ritchie.

What's more, the study found that some existing companies have trouble finding workers with even basic education and skills.

One business owner confidentially told the consultants that he "would move out of Washington County tomorrow" because he could not find hard-working people who were willing to be trained.

Advanced math and science skills are lacking here, said Michael G. Callas, president of Callas Contractors and co-chairman a committee that made recommendations for improving the school system last year.

"The ones working in those types of positions are probably coming from the outside," he said.

Callas said he sees the deficiencies when he searches for new office employees.

"A lot of them can't even add unless they have a computer," he said.

Callas recently hired an Asheville, N.C., head-hunting firm to find a construction engineering manager.

"That's the only way we can get them," he said.

By the numbers

According to the 1990 census, 11.4 percent of Washington County residents 25 and older have bachelor's degrees. That is nearly half the national average of 20.3 percent, and far below the state average of 26.5 percent.

"That's quite low, so it's not going to make people immediately think of your county for a computer programming center," McEnroe said. "Is it fatal? I don't know. But it's an uphill battle."

And the gap is widening.

The concentration of college graduates was 7.3 percentage points lower in the county than in the state in 1970. The difference grew to 15.1 points in 1990, according to the census.

In the meantime, the U.S. economy was evolving, making a college degree more of a requisite for a high-paying job, according to experts.

As a result, income growth lagged in Washington County.

Per capita income is not only lower than state and national averages, it hasn't grown as fast over the last three decades.

In 1969, the county's per capita income was $8,778, compared to a U.S. average of $9,867 and a state average of $11,063.

By 1996, per capita income was $19,917 in the county, $27,676 in the state and $24,426 in the nation.

Other counties in the Tri-State area fared better. According to the Census Bureau, Washington County had a lower percentage of college graduates in 1990 than any Tri-State county except Fulton County in Pennsylvania.

Per capita income in 1996 was lower than that in all of the counties in the region that outranked it educationally except West Virginia's Berkeley and Morgan counties, where the educational difference was negligible.

Frederick County, Md., for instance, had nearly twice as many college graduates and a per capita income $4,665 higher.

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