Thanks in part to deregulation in the communications industry, AT&T will be hiring 150 more people in Thurston County over the next year as it gets ready to provide local telephone service.

The projected figures would mean a 23 percent increase in the number of high-wage telecommunications jobs in the county, says Dennis Matson, executive director of the Economic Development Council of Thurston County.

Patrick McDonald, general manager, announced the company’s plans to double its local workforce in Thurston County at the Year 2000 Economic Forecast Conference at Saint Martin’s College on Dec. 3.

AT&T, which formerly operated as TCI Cable, will be hiring personnel in a mix of jobs ranging from maintenance to home data technology, McDonald said.

The new jobs start at $10 an hour and go to $15 and higher, Matson says.

“They’re the biggest thing going down this year in terms of new hires,” Matson says. “The good news is they’re going to make significant investments into the infrastructure to do that.”

There are 660 telecommunications jobs in Thurston County, Matson says. The average pay per worker is $42,000 a year. Countywide, there are 28 telecommunications companies and that number is growing. Other companies that have entered the fray include ATG, Fine Point and Level 3, which are all expanding their operations in Thurston County.

But this growth has come at a price, Matson says. With deregulation in the telecommunications industry, US West downsized in recent years, causing a loss of jobs in the sector. But, he adds, that has been more than offset by AT&T’s announcement alone.

New growth is just beginning, he says.

“All these companies are making investments in infrastructure,” Matson explains. “Over time, we will see more providers for everything from local phone service to broadband, fiber optic cable. We think it’s going to be a growth sector in this region.”

At the conference, speaker Michael Parks, editor and publisher of Marple’s Business Newsletter, suggested that in the future, there won’t be any e-commerce businesses per se because every business will have an online component. Matson agrees, but like other speakers at the conference warns that the county must have the employment base necessary to fuel that growth. Matson is working with South Puget Sound Community College and St. Martin’s College to see what can be done to make high-tech and related programs available here.

“It’s difficult to achieve critical mass in this market, but we’re trying,” Matson says.

By Kamilla K. McClelland, Business Examiner staff