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Washington County's high-tech future a long way off

August 06, 1999

The experts painted a pretty clear, if not all that encouraging picture: Washington County's workforce isn't smart enough to attract upscale employers. And without upscale employers, Washington County's smartest people won't stick around.

So we're left to believe that enough good minds will never stay in the county long enough to attract quality employers in fields such as high/biotech.

That leaves us much as we are now: Part low-income, service and warehouse sector and part commuter sector.

"There are worse things to being a bedroom community to Baltimore and Washington, which may be in your future whether you like it or not," shrugged Case Western professor Paul Gottlieb.

Speaking to Herald-Mail reporter Brendan Kirby in a revealing article on education and the workforce, Gottlieb and others poked holes in the long-celebrated balloon of "abundant, low-cost labor."

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In fact, in a changing economy, what we have long believed to be an asset may indeed be a liability. In labor as elsewhere, you often get what you pay for. And when a high-tech firm hears a sales pitch that includes "low-cost labor," it may automatically think "unskilled, untrainable labor."

Local educators are aware of the phenomenon, which they blame on the manufacturing hangover brought on by the loss over the years of thousands of jobs and Mack and Fairchild. As School Superintendent Herman Bartlett points out, in the old days, the issue wasn't a college degree, it was whether a boy was going to stick around for a high school degree before heading off to the big money of the floor assembly lines.

College degrees were for teachers, who spent an extra four years in school for the privilege of earning half as much. Kids, now parents themselves, could be excused for failing to recognize the benefits of a sheepskin. And it explains why, when you walk down a Washington County street, only one out of 10 grownups you see will have a college degree.

That's pretty poor pickins for a high-tech company.

Can the cycle of poor education/poor job selection/poor pay be broken? The experts seem to think it's doubtful. They use phrases such as "uphill battle" and "the poor get poorer."

As far as becoming the next Research Triangle or Route 128, doubtless they are accurate. But if educators and local business leaders are on the right page, and it appears they are, there's no reason not to expect small, incremental advances in both the quality of jobs and the people who fill them.

Business leaders who emphasize small companies have it right. While big companies get the attention (a proposal for a glorified filling station on I-70 made headlines this week because it boasted 75 jobs), the small companies with few employees but lots of ideas are the ones to watch.

Much more likely than a 1,000-job manufacturer is the chance we could attract a small, four-person firm that can't afford Montgomery County office space, but does have the potential to bloom. For the companies that succeed, the Allegheny Energy technology park and continuing education from the University of Maryland system could await.

HCC already has in place its high-tech incubator program. Washington County could become known as a spot that will give little people with big ideas a chance.

In the meantime, the experts' views of Washington County should be a lesson in how we manage our lands. If indeed the best we can hope for is a bedroom community or weekend playground for Washington and Baltimore, it's in our interests to invest in plans that prevent ugly sprawl, take care of our history, and emphasize our heritage and natural beauty. If we ruin the land, commuters and recreators won't have any interest in coming here and we'll digress into little more than a Wal-Mart and McDonald's staging area.

Washington County has some of the best bicycling and motorcycling roads in the Mid-Atlantic states. It has River and Trails Outfitters, gems like Pen-Mar and Devil's Backbone, battlefield history, Smithsburg peaches and Lehman's sweet corn, Hancock's river park, the C&O towpath and Fort Frederick, the Suns and auto tracks, the Blues Fest and Mountain Green Concert Series, the Maryland Symphony and Hagerstown Municipal Band - and we do food pretty well, too.

Instead of trying to become what we're not, such as a Silicon Valley or, anymore, home to major manufacturers, we can emphasize what we have, which is not too shabby.

But if we don't protect it, we'll lose it. These outside-expert's detached views of the economy in Washington County were not entirely encouraging, but they could be construed as good advice.

A county of small, interesting companies, commuters and host to weekend recreation seekers. There are worse things.




Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist

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