The Technology Industry: Paving the Way to Recovery

11 February 2011

This week, I had the pleasure of attending The Atlantic’s digital town hall on “Finding Work, Finding Our Way: Building the Economy & Jobs of the Future” at the Newseum. Those of us in attendance were treated to enlightening interviews and discussions with a “who’s who” of D.C. power brokers and thought leaders. We witnessed a lively debate on America’s place in the global economy – and how to get back to our pre-crisis level of prosperity.

Leading off was the main headliner, Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner. Undeniably brilliant and fascinatingly complex, it’s intriguing to see him in person. Perhaps no man or woman in the country (outside of President Obama) is under more pressure than Geithner, and it’s evident when you see him speak. Every word he says is so carefully measured, as if he’s constantly thinking “one careless word could send the markets back into a tailspin.” Geithner acknowledged the uphill climb he’s responsible for leading– after all, eight million jobs were lost at the onset of the recession, only a million of which have returned. He was also realistic about the immediate prospects of struggling industries such as housing and construction, after effects of the “trauma” of the crisis.

But the industry leading the way through the recovery?: hi-tech. Secretary Geithner explained America’s technology companies are innovating at higher rates than ever – a bright spot in an otherwise bleak economy. And he said the industry isn’t outsourcing jobs at nearly the same rate as others. The top engineers in the world still gravitate here, he said – a trend that is helping the U.S. mitigate the effects of the recession. Geithner left us all with a greater understanding of our current economic status and provided a road map to spur further growth.

Reserved. Discreet. Apathetic. None of these words describe FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski. He’s emerged as one of the more high profile members of the Obama Administration. The President’s State of the Union pledge to bring wireless broadband to 98% of the American population has put Genachowski firmly in the spotlight, while his pro-net neutrality stand has earned him equally populated legions of loyal fans – and heated rivals.

The always engaging Genachowski repeatedly stressed the importance of bringing high-speed internet to rural areas normally slow to adopt advanced technology. Genachowski said internet access is critical to farmers who rely on it to sell their produce and follow weather patterns. Businesses are rapidly fleeing small towns where high-speed wireless is unavailable.

Moderator Judy Woodruff of PBS asked how the U.S. stacks up against the world in wireless technology. Genachowski’s answer was to the point: “not well.” He reaffirmed his commitment to pushing 4G throughout the country in support of the “apps economy” – something he sees as a major growth factor. Genachowski was eager to discuss the tablet rise, predicting tablets will soon replace textbooks in high school and college classrooms throughout the country. As someone who not too long ago was lugging 40 lb backpacks from class to class, all I can say is “amen.”

While Geithner and Genachowski were hard acts to top, the ensuing participants offered some interesting insights. Senator Orrin Hatch (likely facing a conservative primary challenge) answered the question “is it possible to insert Tea Party rhetoric into every answer no matter the question?” with a definitive yes. He topped it off by recalling a conversation with “my good friend Jeff Zuckerberg from Facebook.” Maybe they’re not as close as he thought…

Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell gave an impressive outline of ways state governments can engage with China. I was also intrigued by the manner in which states are engaging in intense competition for relocating businesses. McDonnell and North Carolina Governor Beverly Purdue in particular appear to be in the swing of a friendly business recruitment rivalry.

For me, the highlight of the event came in one of the panel discussions, courtesy of Safi Bahcall, CEO of Synta Pharmaceuticals – a successful startup focusing on cancer medication. He spoke in reference to Woodruff’s earlier satellite Q&A with students from the University of Miami (Ohio) and University of North Carolina. Literally every student who had secured a job for next year was on his or her way to a financial firm. Bahcall commented, “you know what I want to see some of these kids say? ‘I want to cure cancer.’ I’m pretty sure the world doesn’t need another hedge fund manager.”

And that’s the message I took from Finding Work, Finding Our Way. The current economic picture may be somber at best, but no country has more resources to dig its way out than the United States. It’s a matter of aiming big, not small. Bunt singles are nice, but its home run hitters like Chairman Genachowski and Safi Bahcall who will truly put runs on the board.

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One Response to “The Technology Industry: Paving the Way to Recovery”

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