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Election is over, help us focus leaders on tech growth

The elections are over…now comes the hard part: spending some political capital on innovation and growth.

While the overwhelming electoral support for Governor Rell and the Democratic legislative leadership testifies to the satisfaction and confidence the public has in our overall political leadership, the tasks awaiting everyone in Hartford are no less daunting than those awaiting 49 other state governments. Now comes the hard work of creating policies that promote growth and economic expansion and which drive an increase in high value added businesses and institutions that sell things made here or services developed here to buyers outside of Connecticut.

The good news is that our government may have a large surplus to help create a comprehensive growth strategy. We still have enviable educational strengths, decent geography, a smart workforce and our existing tough and savvy businesses. The bad news is that neither the Governor, nor our legislative leaders such as Speaker Jim Amann or Senate President Donald Williams, ran (as many candidates in other state did) on a platform to retool the economy or to make major league investments in innovation (the kind that will get entrepreneurs in Bangalore or San Francisco to take note).

The subject of growth and job creation never made it into the consciousness of the Connecticut electorate or the political debate. But, here’s the problem. In the three big states nearby that matter – Massachusetts, New York and New Jersey –each has new governor (Patrick, Spitzer and Corzine) who has publicly pledged to make his state a center for technology driven growth. And each has the resources, resolve and ambition to make a big splash.

So, since most companies move less than 100 miles when they do move for incentives or to grow, we are either going to be in the middle of the bull’s-eye for these other states’ business recruitment efforts, or we can plan carefully and become a worthy option for each firm negotiating or just thinking of a move to one of our surrounding neighbors.

The coming pressure from these other states for jobs and investments means we don’t have the option of doing nothing this year and instead putting all of our energies into other worthy efforts such as health care reform or the environment.

We must taking care of our regional positioning for economic growth before it is too late.

As the advocate for our statewide community of some 2,500 technology related businesses, we hear about the pleasures and the challenges of our little piece of north metro New York (or southern New England). With over 200,000 people employed in some direct connection to technology, we continue to mine the riches that high productivity and a very well educated, albeit somewhat aging population, can achieve. We are, after all, still nominally the richest state in the country.

And yet, there continuing warnings of trouble ahead. The annual statewide benchmarks report about to be released by the Connecticut Economic Research Center (CERC) will remind us this Thursday, that rich as we are, we are not growing and that we may lag in the bottom of all states in key areas such as the rate of new patents issued, new highly educated additions to the workforce and even fundamental indices such as population growth.

When it comes to retaining the top high school students for whom we spend so much suburban real estate taxes educating, the record is dismal. We lag the nation in retaining kids going off to college. The bright young people at our highly competitive public and private colleges also tend to leave after graduation. The 23 to 35 year-old generation is packing its bags and heading to places that we used to think of as fit only for retirement, country music and cattle drives.

So this brings us back to Election Day. The voters said emphatically “we like things the way they are.” The public in Connecticut, with its attention diverted by international issues of war and peace and lulled by that “richest state in the country” tag into a complacency, may soon be marching backwards, towards accelerating job losses and a deceleration of the economy.

One scary statistic indicates we may actually lead the country in percentage loss of the population with a bachelor’s degree over the next five years. Ask any HR person in Charlotte where the next highly trained worker is coming from and they are apt to tell you “Waterbury, Torrington or New London.” This gives you a bit of insight into why the unemployment levels are so low here.

If you live within commuting distance of New York City and its financial services sector, or if you are a highly trained professional who makes a living off the needs of other older, highly paid workers who are here, worrying about growing Connecticut’s internal economy may seem unimportant. But, if your kids had to fly in from Seattle or Austin for Thanksgiving and your firm keeps expanding the Phoenix or Orlando office, then the mission of helping to build demand for our elected officials to spend some of their “political capital” on technology based economic development makes a lot of sense.

Next time we’ll explore some of the ways other states are grabbing onto high tech development in ways rarely seen even during the “smoke stack chasing” days of the 1970s and 80s. In the meantime, ask your local state reps or senator what plans they have to help Connecticut keep up with other states in the race to have the most entrepreneurial innovative economy in the country. Chances are they will ask for your help and ideas. Then volunteer your time and then give us a call. Your new role as a technology economic activist will have begun.

Matthew Nemerson President & CEO Connecticut Technology Council

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