Kathy Wilcox of the Washington Software Alliance (WSA) calls the shortage of skilled workers needed by the high-tech industry one of the most critical issues facing South Sound.

Speaking at a recent meeting of the Tacoma Technology Consortium (TTC), Wilcox pointed out that the technology industry in Washington is growing twice as fast as the national average and, after Boeing, is the second largest sector of the economy in the Evergreen State. And high-tech jobs are even more effective at creating spinoffs, or jobs in related fields, than Boeing.

“High technology means family wage jobs,” Wilcox said. “And there are plenty of those.”

Unfortunately, she said, training programs aren’t keeping up with the demand.

Wilcox, who calls the WSA the oldest and largest trade organization of its kind in the United States, said Tacoma needs to be aggressive in attracting high-tech firms and high-tech workers, as well as developing programs that can train those already living here to take advantage of the bonanza. Other cities such as Boise and Vancouver, B.C. are competing for the same resources, she said

Among the characteristics companies look for when deciding whether to settle in Tacoma or Boise or Vancouver or a number of other cities that also are in the hunt, she said, are affordable housing and office space, traffic congestion and room to grow.

In these areas, she said, Tacoma and Pierce County have an advantage over King County. And, she added, it boasts buildings that already are wired for the high-tech future.

“Tacoma should be on everyone’s minds in this industry,” Wilcox declared.

Congressman Adam Smith also was present for the meeting and said his 540,000 constituents expect him to improve the economy.

“The best thing I can do for them is create economic growth,” he said. The high-tech economy has flourished in Seattle and the Eastside, he said. Tacoma and Pierce County need to do more to catch up, he added.

“We’ve done okay down here,” he said, “but we can do better.”

To a certain extent both Smith and Wilcox were preaching to the choir. TCC was organized last summer by entrepreneurs, business owners, educators and politicians with an interest in high-tech industries and the labor needs of those industries.

“I think that our growing presence is making a statement,” program chair Andrea Peterson of Colliers International said of attendance at the most recent meeting. She pointed out that the first time the group met, there were only a handful of members. Now meetings are attended by 100 or so people.

It’s an opportunity to stay current with what’s happening locally and to network, she said, adding that TTC is eager to work with the City of Tacoma and the Tacoma/Pierce County Chamber of Commerce to attract high-tech firms in the area.

“We are heading in a positive direction,” she said.

She also announced that three new telephone companies will soon be doing business in Tacoma. She identified Echelon Telecom and McLeod USA by name but said she was not at liberty to disclose the name of the third.

Mayor Brian Ebersole was at the meeting to applaud IT professionals in the audience for invigorating the local economy.

“It’s great to have new talent in town” Ebersole told them.

By John Larson, Business Examiner staff