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Telecom cluster overlooked again in national high-tech study

JACKSON — In the Aug. 13 issue of BusinessWeek magazine, a new report ranked high-tech “hot spots” with no mention of Mississippi’s push into technology. Was it an oversight?

The article, “Rust Belts? Try Tech Belts,” was based on the report, “High-Tech and I-Tech: How Metros Rank and Specialize,” compiled by Ann Markusen, director of the Project on Regional and Industrial Economics at the University of Minnesota.

In the report, metropolitan areas were ranked by thousands of workers per capita in the high-tech sector. The top three “high-tech meccas” were Chicago, Washington, D.C., and San Jose, Calif., respectively.

The high-tech meccas located near Mississippi were Houston (No. 10) and Atlanta (No. 12).

Of the 30 metropolitan areas mentioned, others from the South, excluding Texas, were Tampa, Fla. (No. 19), Raleigh-Durham, N.C. (No. 20), Charlotte, N.C. (No. 22), Orlando, Fla. (No. 26), and Nashville, Tenn. (No. 29). Other cities in the top 10 included Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Seattle and Minneapolis.

The study listed many “rust belt” cities that aren’t normally included in high-tech cluster surveys.

“We used a more restrictive criteria for counting technical employees in information technology clusters than we did for other industries that we included as high-tech,” said Markusen.

“I don’t think it was an oversight,” said Troy Stovall, president and CEO of GulfSouth Capital, a venture capital firm in Jackson. “We are still in our infancy. Atlanta has been at this for a number of years. A more interesting poll would be the emerging locales and then I think Mississippi should be under consideration.”

At first glance, the study appeared fairly conclusive and all encompassing of the nation’s high-tech workers in related industries. But a closer look revealed that the study only included the top 30 metro areas by the number of jobs added in the 1990s, counting employees at all levels within the high-tech industry. For example, Los Angeles and San Francisco weren’t even mentioned.

“If I were to do it again, I might do it differently,” said Markusen. “We made a decision to include absolute numbers of jobs rather than relative numbers. That was motivated to learn the highest numbers of high-tech workers.

“But over time, the high-tech studies that kept showing cities like Phoenix, Austin, Texas, and Boise, Idaho, as the top places were penalizing other places for having other industries. It just shows how specialized a workforce is. If you have a high share of high-tech industry workers in your whole workforce because you don’t have anything else, then you look really good. So it turns out that a large concentration of high-tech jobs is in places that also have their share of older traditional jobs.”

Markusen said several business people from around the nation called to complain about the way the study was compiled.

“We included a lot of information technology services and sectors that other studies didn’t,” she said. “Because information technology is more spread out than high-tech manufacturing, it means that places like Mississippi would do better.

“If we included the auto manufacturing business, a highly efficient and technical plant like your new Nissan plant would count for a lot. But we didn’t consider auto manufacturing in the survey because it is swamped with so many blue-collar workers. Detroit did well in the study because there are so many auto-related services like engineering, engines and turbines, and it is the case that one of the greatest strengths of your Southern economy is due to the large sophisticated branch plants.”

William M. “Billy” Mounger II, chairman of CIT.ms, and chairman of TeleCorp PSC, said, “When we go around the country raising capital, people recognize Jackson as a telecom center. But we don’t yet have a reputation as a true information technology center, so we have work to do to get us on the map. We want to bring some national publications down and let them see what’s going on because there’s a lot more than they know about.”

Angeline Dvorak, Ph.D., president of Mississippi Tech Alliance (MTA), said one of the challenges of MTA is getting the word out nationally about Mississippi’s emerging presence in the high-tech and telecom industries.

“It’s one of the reasons we will be publishing the Mississippi Innovation Index this year, because it gives us a vehicle by which we can measure ourselves and know where the data comes from and how that data is compiled and assessed,” she said. “I think we need a watchdog mentality where we monitor our image and position in the national scene in the science and technology sector.”

Dvorak pointed to bright spots in the national media, such as the Small Business Survival Index released last month, ranking Mississippi No. 9 among entrepreneur-friendly states. In the report, released by the Small Business Survival Committee (SBSC), Florida and Alabama were ranked No. 5 and 8, respectively.

Raymond Keating, SBSC chief economist, said, “The best policy environment for entrepreneurship consists of low taxes, limited government, restrained regulation and government protecting life, limb and property. States following such a governing philosophy will reap great rewards from America’s entrepreneurs, including faster economic growth and increased job creation.”

Dvorak said more reports like SBSC’s would facilitate upgrading Mississippi’s image.

“Over the next year, in an organizational mission, we’re going to be much more vocal in moving the discussions on what’s going on in Mississippi to a national market by doing more peer-reviewed articles,” she said. “The building of the science and technology economic development of the state must happen concurrently with some old fashioned image building.”

Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne Wilbanks Jeter at lwjeter@yahoo.com or (601) 853-3967.

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