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We found ourselves in a bit of a quandary.

There was a new program being set up in our region to encourage high-technology business. Those who held the purse strings, though, would go all vague when contacted by our representative, probably because of one little question: "What exactly do you mean by ‘high technology’?"

As it turns out, one of the first businesses brought to our area makes case components for personal computers and similarly packaged servers. Call them Bendoform Widgets. None of us would argue that this operation certainly depended upon technology, and supports the technology industry. For some reason, though, it bothered us, and we couldn’t understand why.

The economic development agency also turned down a book publisher (Hardbook Publishing) that, too, was looking at moving. Again, this bothered us for reasons we couldn’t fathom.

The ostensible reason for this program (and so many others like it across the United States) is to create or foster economic stability in some region, neighborhood, or sector by developing or importing businesses which will promise to train a workforce from the local (and presumably underutilized) labor pool. Sales would come in from some other part of the nation or the world, providing positive cash flow toward the community, as opposed to (say) a fast-food franchise that would simply add to the competition not only for the local dollar but for a finite unskilled, low-wage labor pool.

The situation began to make less sense, albeit in a more logical manner, when we took a moment to begin analyzing the rationale underlying the economic development program. Bendoform makes a few vital pieces of computer hardware for various manufacturers as well as the aftermarket. These items do inarguably important things like holding up the hard-disk drives, shaping air flow over heat sinks on the microprocessors, and holding together all of the jacks at the back of the computer.

While the industry for which Bendoform makes these brackets is of the typical "high technology" sort, the simple fact of the matter is that Bendoform makes sheet-metal stampings. Most of the "skilled workers" they have trained with tax money have learned little more than how to wield a lever on a stamping machine, brake, or cutter. Their janitors push brooms and wield mops. That they perform these tasks for Bendoform doesn’t make them "high technology" workers.

Meanwhile, the rejected suitor, Hardbook, practices a trade that is hundreds if not thousands of years old. Authors write their manuscripts, Hardbook has them printed and bound into books, then seeks out ways to sell these books. Something so simple and straightforward is considered a low-technology trade, an industry bordering on handicraft despite the billions of dollars that flow through.

Unless you’ve thought carefully about it, or have had some sort of contact with the publishing industry, you probably have no idea how drastically publishing has been affected by the rise of reliable and inexpensive technology. Even ten years ago, most books were laboriously typed out by authors (or their assistants), edited and retyped by the publisher’s editor, then typeset. Nowadays, more and more books stop being real, tangible objects with the author’s scribbled notes, and do not reemerge as physical entities until printing plates are prepared for the presses. (Even these presses may be going the way of the mastodon as quality and speed of computer-fed printers steadily improve.)

Hardbook Publishing therefore exemplifies a brace of seeming paradoxes. Though the product itself, books, isn’t so drastically changed from previous centuries, in either form or concept, entire strata of workers have simply ceased to exist. (Such changes possibly affect you as well. When was the last time you worked for a company that had a steno pool and a typing pool?) It is these leaps and bounds that have simultaneously taken the necessary tasks out of the hands of highly skilled artisans and craftspeople, allowing anyone of fairly average intelligence and skill to turn someone’s prose into nicely typeset text, complete with proper grammar, spelling, and usage, and diligently inspected for every fault that haunted our grammar teacher (and the company attorneys) – all diligently performed by a relatively inexpensive computer.

At last, it occurred to us that the problem we had initially sensed stems from two factors. First, people who are big on using the word "high-tech" are incorrect. Much of our life, however mundane the act, is primarily or secondarily dependent upon technology so advanced that it did not even exist in a primitive state thirty years ago. Aside from retail clerks and food-service jobs, there is really very little in our culture that is truly low-technology.

Secondly, we’re all overlooking another dimension, and probably two. Where do most things, especially modern businesses, fit into the technology continuum of high-to-low? Roughly, somewhere in the middle. The next dimension (and one that would at least push the discussion into more fruitful paths for everyone) is soft technology versus hard technology. When most people think of "high tech" occupations, what they usually mean is better called "soft tech" – the occupation furthers the creation, organization, and transfer of data that at some point down the line results in objects, but does not of itself produce anything tangible other than reports and studies.

The continuum should, more correctly (and especially for the purposes of economic development programs) be applying a better terminology, beginning with something like "technology intensive."

And that is exactly what had been bothering us. Bendoform had assorted local officials falling over themselves and each other. Because Bendoform is a "high technology" company, the conceptual leap was made that Bendoform is also going to be creating "high technology" jobs, when the reality is that any position higher than supervisor (and a majority of those) is being imported from out of state, with no plan to eventually replace them with workers from the region.

By comparison, Hardbook is just a book publisher, a "low technology" industry if ever there was. But in order to expand, they were hoping to stock a proper warehouse and shipping/receiving area, which together would have employed half a dozen local workers for a start, and seen them all trained in computerized warehousing and order processing, skills that offer both upward mobility within a corporation and transferability elsewhere. Besides that, Hardbook wanted to begin building a talent pool of editors and book designers. Since this publisher is not part of a conglomerate (as is Bendoform), it needed to locate its own talent pool and create what it couldn’t find. They were all set to train every worker in usage of personal computers, to encourage cross-training so that everyone would be able to move into occupations that better suited their abilities.

As a result, our region passed up a wonderful opportunity to train dozens of local workers, and eventually a hundred or more, in skills that would readily prove attractive to other businesses considering relocation.

These sorts of programs ought to be looking much more carefully at actual job creation as well. New companies steal away workers (and suppliers and customers) from existing local businesses that don’t have the same fresh glitter. Or a company moves in, and imports its workers from outside (or brings them along) rather than training locals.

Too often, companies that benefit from these programs don’t give a serious damn about the local economy, much less about social conditions or betterment of the community except insofar as it affects them until they decide to move their caravan elsewhere in search of the next round of subsidized outflow.

Companies need to be brought it that don’t merely chase the same ragged dollar around in a circle, or worse yet, suck up local money in order to send it elsewhere (until recent years, the biggest culprit in most peoples’ minds would’ve been fast-food franchises, but now it is the mega-mart stores). The worst of these gladly bankrupt dozens of established businesses, then compete for the stranded employees by offering them less: less pay, less hours, less respect, less benefits, less personal contact, less loyalty. After having driven the local economy down to the point where demand for their goods and services slumps, the business is free to cite "economic conditions" to close its doors and slink away, leaving a withered husk where once a community stood.

A few small words can change this.

article © 2003, Fred Hamilton, Rural Renaissance

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