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Seattle's achilles heel: Retaining human capital

A new book by Michael Luis takes a deep look into Seattle's potential to maintain its role as a global city.
Author Michael Luis

Author Michael Luis Century 21 City

Michael Luis' Century 21 City

Michael Luis' Century 21 City

Will the Seattle area continue to be one of those global cities where the economic, social, environmental and geographic elements combine to create a vibrant economic base filled with strong companies, smart workers and an attractive quality of life?

That’s the question Michael Luis’ new book on the Seattle region, Century 21 City, sets out to answer. Luis looks at the history of the region, focuses in on Seattle’s “50-year journey from world’s fair to world stage” and places that journey in the context of the rise of regional hubs around the world. Why and how Seattle has risen to become one of those centers of technology, innovation, risk taking and success is an interesting tale, full of twists and turns.

Luis also places the story of the Seattle region’s rise within the larger question of how metro areas turn themselves into regional metropolitan centers, why they survive and what’s needed to keep them vibrant into the future. By the end of the book, you feel like you have been sitting in the classroom at a top university, listening to a case study on the ins and outs of regional development.

For anyone who has been in the Seattle area for a while, Luis takes you breezily through a familiar history — early settlers, the role of forests and fish, WWII growth, the “Boeing Bust,” the importance of world trade, the shift to technology and so forth.

Luis does pull out some interesting statistics though. The supposed “Boeing Bust” of the late 1960s wasn't such a bust after all. Boeing cut about 60,000 jobs, tough on the Boeing workers to be sure, but the regional economy did not suffer as much as job multipliers would imply. Most of the job loss was concentrated in manufacturing and construction. Other industries lost a total of only 16,000 jobs over the period of the bust. Net out-migration was significant — 85,000 over a four-year period from 1970 to 1974 — but Luis notes that, over a 10-year period from 1965 to 1974, the region gained about 140,000. And many of the engineers and skilled workers who came here before the bust apparently stayed, setting the stage for Seattle’s growth spurt to come.

We also meet Fred Haley of Brown and Haley, makers of Almond Roca candies, and his stark assessment of the regional economy in 1957:  “Ours is essentially a colonial economy,” Haley said, exporting natural resource products in raw or semi-finished form and importing the finished and capital goods. That was a fair assessment of the economy then, based mostly on timber, fish and agricultural products.

Luis traces the growth of the Seattle economy away from that dependence on natural resources to its emergence in the 1980s as a knowledge center, driven by companies such as Microsoft, Boeing, Aldus and others. It reminded me of the quip that the region’s most significant economic development strategy was to have Bill Gates born here.

Luis is himself a third-generation resident of the Seattle area, living in Medina where he is a councilmember and mayor. For many years he was at the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce as a vice president, giving him a ring-side view of many of the region's major changes. He is also a public policy consultant, closely associated with many of the economic strategies of the region.

All of this experience lends itself to the comprehensive nature of his book, which looks at, among other things,

  • Current thinking about how cities and metropolitan areas work.
  • An overview of the Seattle area economy and some of the metrics and indicators showing that the region is, on balance, economically successful.
  • A chronology of Seattle’s economic story from the beginnings in the 1850s and the various boom and bust cycles that have been typical of the economy here.
  • Drivers of the economy and how they have evolved over the past 50 years.
  • Major industries that underpin the economy and how they have evolved, including aerospace, the ports, software and life sciences.
  • Local government’s contribution to economic success has never been entirely clear, and “it becomes more difficult with the diffusion of industries and population across the metropolitan area,” according to Luis.

One of the main themes is the importance of geography. “Seattle’s history is built around the challenge of creating a vital and growing economy in a remote part of the country,” Luis writes. “Not too long ago we got used to hearing confident predictions of the diminishing role of place and the death of distance." 


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Comments:

Posted Mon, Nov 26, 9:57 a.m. Inappropriate

It will be interesting to read Luis' book. I've just returned from 6 weeks working in Chicago (....the city where Boeing is now based, supposedly because its closer to its markets???). Chicago is not a fair comparison on many counts, not the least because it has about 10 times as many people does Seattle. But there is a plethora of cultural wonders in Chicago, big, small, local and internationally famous- spread across nearly all the arts.
It seems that one thing that would help retain human capital in Seattle (of the sort that moves here for work, and those of us already living here) is a more serious concerted effort to boost our cultural footprint. We do pretty well with what little support the state and city provide (which is always ranked way towards the bottom nationally), but could do a great deal more if providing such support were taken seriously. Intelligent, well-educated people (including the sort presumably brought here for well-paying gigs) appreciate what culture provides, find it stimulating and thought provoking. Such entities as the Seattle City Council and the King County Council seem ever-ready to provide funding and special tax bennies for sports, but almost nothing for the arts. Perhaps those firms that would stand to benefit from retention of those people that they have brought here could put more of an effort into such support. With the sad exception of Amazon, their names regularly appear on the rosters of givers to the arts in the region. But it isn't sufficient. They give that support because it is deemed culturally correct that they do- because it looks appropriate to have their corporate names in the list in the program at the symphony (and Boeing still does give....). But maybe the argument needs to be made that there is more than correctness and politeness involved- our place needs a thriving cultural scene if it is to stay vital. Cultural resources are not luxuries- they invigorate a place and make it truly remarkable. They give us good reason to stay here.

thoughts

Posted Mon, Nov 26, 12:27 p.m. Inappropriate

Most people don't move to places to experience culture, they move for jobs and a good place to raise a family. The arts are at the bottom of the list. We can't even provide a decent education for our children, how does it make sense to support public funding for the arts?

Djinn

Posted Mon, Nov 26, 1:44 p.m. Inappropriate

From the review, quoting from the book: "We understand how to attract physical capital but not how to recruit intellectual capital.” Apparently you're one of the people around here who don't get it.

louploup

Posted Mon, Nov 26, 3:50 p.m. Inappropriate

There is no such thing as "intellectual capital". The term sounds good but is meaningless.

jhande

Posted Mon, Nov 26, 3:57 p.m. Inappropriate

I get it but I don't think you do. Museums around the world have a NW Indian mask, totem, etc in their collection. Those works of art were produced because the culture that made them had time and full bellies.

Fast forward to the present. The occupy movement, the 99%, wasn't about the arts, but instead focused on getting a share of the goodies, food, money, you name it. This was true in Seattle and any other large or small American city during the movement. Sure they used some very striking images to deliver that message, so they did have an intellectual capability. But the real issue was about wealth not the arts. We didn't see a whole of sob stories about the lack of statues or monuments now did we? We saw stories about the lack of services and mundane issues that supposedly made up the everyday existence of the marchers.

Interesting enough, it's mostly those dastardly 1% who are true patron of the arts and keep them alive. They have more time and the means to devote and support to them. Are you going to stop watching PBS because a Koch or Walton sponsored it? Will you pass up the chance to visit a Carnegie library because a filthy rich robber baron fronted the money?

Intellectual capital can flourish in here when it has access to money to allow its full expression. Unfortunately here in Puget Sound we live in Mircosoft country, might be another story if we had a different operating system.

Djinn

Posted Thu, Nov 29, 7:31 p.m. Inappropriate

Buzzwords. Bad.

Posted Mon, Nov 26, 5:26 p.m. Inappropriate

Thoughts, you are completely correct. & I disagree that "talented & creative" means children of wealthy. They may WANNA be talented and creative, and some of them may actually have talent and creativity, but choosing a creative life in a casino-capitalist culture is not a recipe for wealth.

I have lived in the Seattle metro area since 1988 and, culturally in many ways, it is still quite provincial. In literary arts matters, Seattle has never had an innovative movement such as Vancouver BC's TISH group and Portland's Reed College poets (Snyder, Whalen, Welch, Scalapino.) I think this says something.

Chicago has SO MANY cultural amenities and, it is true, these are powerful attractors. The museums there, the architecture, The Bean, the Frank Lloyd Wright house and tour, the blues and jazz, the ethnic mix (and the restaurants) are all factors making the quality of life quite high in that town. Seattle's evolving, but there is not the history of culture there (excepting Native American culture) as there is in Chicago and that lack of history, combined with the anti-culture that is the industry-generated-culture, makes for a hard row to hoe for real artists. I think the Stranger Genius grant awards are a step in the right direction, but the Stranger often acts as if the city ends at the Capitol Hill neighborhood boundaries. Still, look at their nominees. Pretty accurate choices, for the most part, and they don't make artists apply, which means it transcends the "LOOK AT ME" approach taken by most other award programs in the state. Even the Washington State Poet Laureate is a "self-nomination" process. Imagine someone putting laurels on their own head! Seems a little weird to me. The Artist Trust Innovator Awards (funded by Dale Chihuly, bless him) has the same self-nomination process.

One last thought. Native American culture is more vibrant here than in Chicago and most parts back east. There is the Steinbrueck Gallery, Marvin Oliver's work and his network and many other ways to investigate Coastal Salish and other brilliant Native Art forms. This should be funded about 100 times what it is now, but when it comes to Native Americans, we're better known here for shooting them: http://www.komonews.com/news/local/114299464.html

Splabman

Posted Sat, Dec 1, 3:34 p.m. Inappropriate

Why do so many people say they love and admire Indian art and want more money to support museums, galleries and the like, yet we do nothing to let the current generations of Indians come to the table of business in as many ways as we let everyone else in? It's embarassing how we seem to think that reservations are anything but destructive. Gambling just doesn't seem like a fair trade or a modern equivalent of life before the settlers took over.

Posted Mon, Nov 26, 1:51 p.m. Inappropriate

"enlightened corporate leadership"?

You mean like preventing construction (and maintenance) of essential transportation infrastructure until it's a decade late and a few billion dollars more expensive? You mean like keeping Washington from rising off the bottom of the list of state tax structures in fairness? And not helping stop the resulting erosion of public education?

Maybe there is such a thing as occasional "enlightened corporate leadership," but I think it's mostly an oxymoronic phrase.

louploup

Posted Mon, Nov 26, 2 p.m. Inappropriate

The arts might be at the bottom of your list, but they are far higher on nearly every study of 'liveability' that has been attempted. Cities like London and New York long ago realized that with lousy climates and prohibitively expensive costs of living, they couldn't retain their educated populations without strongly helping the arts. And as the studies have shown, people will visit and live in places where there is a thriving cultural scene. These places don't fund the arts just because they like the ballet.

The issue being discussed in the article above isn't about moving to a place for a job- the expensive human capital coming here comes with a job in hand. But what keeps them here might just be 'intangibles' like the cultural scene. Creative people want to be around creativity, and that's the business of the arts. They want to be stimulated, and not just by nature.

Its not a question of arts OR education. Studies have proven over and over again that spending money on the arts comes back several times over to the community. I don't have the exact multiplier at my fingertips, but for every dollar spent, many more are spent in the community by citizens. Spending on the arts is not only not a drain on the economy, its a boon.

The talented creative people brought here, and the others who come of their own volition have the luxury of taking their high-value skills and knowledge anywhere in the world, the global economy assures that. If we want to be a true player, which is what Luis's book is about, the region has to offer them reason to stay. Culture is one of the most vital ways to attract and keep people here, and we all, not just they, benefit.

thoughts

Posted Mon, Nov 26, 3:57 p.m. Inappropriate

We do not need to make our policy and decisions based upon what might make somebody move here. "Talented, creative people" usually just means the manicured offspring of the wealthy. That is all that Bill Gates jr is. We do not even have a way to ensure that the "talented, creative people" are even judged to be that based upon merit. It ends up being a clique, the same as in high school. The problem is that the "talented, creative people" aren't, they just know the right people, and were born privileged.

Also, I do not put much import into what any politician, who lives in Medina, says.

jhande

Posted Mon, Nov 26, 6:33 p.m. Inappropriate

'Scuse me, but I don't see any indication in this article that the area is in jeopardy of going downhill in the business of attracting talent; in fact it seems to be quite the opposite. Nor do I see much in the way of recommended, necessary corrective action.

It has been my belief that Seattle has prospered due to what we used to call the "Mt. Rainier Factor" at Boeing, which was given as the reason that Boeing could attract talent away from better paying environs.

Other reasons:

Bill Boeing was into lumber and dallied (initially) in aircraft more or less as a hobby

Bill Gates was born here

As for Bezos, from Wiki-P:

He had left his "well-paying job" at a New York City hedge fund when he "learned about the rapid growth in Internet use", which coincided with a "then-new U.S. Supreme Court ruling [that] online retailers don't have to collect sales taxes in states where they lack a physical presence"; he had headed to Washington because its relatively small population meant fewer of his future customers would have to pay sales tax.[6]

And probably because he could poach M$ talent

And bio science:

Well, the area needed a med school, and the UW decided to become more of a commercial organization than a bastion of undergraduate education

In other words, the feckless attempts of the Seattle area government and its educational establishment has had very little to do with it -- in fact, have done their best in some ways to impede it; but it just has been inevitable, and we can always import all of the talent we need due to the above local features, which are not likely to go away.

kmeyer

Posted Wed, Nov 28, 7:25 p.m. Inappropriate

This Nov 9th article may define what Dunphy meant by "Retaining human capital."
http://crosscut.com/2012/11/09/econ-finance/111407/wither-markets/

Michael Luis admits "Seattle is a mid-sized metropolitan region vulnerable to outside change." But he and Dunphy think about Seattle as it relates to the world despite global warming, sea level rise and climate change. The New York Times recently published maps of how American coastal cities could flood. The Duwamish overflowed its banks by 100' all the way to Kent. Lake Washington flooded Renton and joined a vast Kent lakeland. The "cheap & dirty" seawall technique fails and the bore tunnel eventually exerts its entire length of destructive force upon downtown Seattle towers. You dear reader may witness an American city fall exactly according to the bore tunnel design despite heated warnings. Have your camera ready to record your own demise. What a YouTube hit that will make.

Wells

Posted Thu, Nov 29, 7:34 p.m. Inappropriate

Really??? This is what you think? "I get it but I don't think you do. Museums around the world have a NW Indian mask, totem, etc in their collection. Those works of art were produced because the culture that made them had time and full bellies."

No, it's because they didn't have books, the written word, print media, TV or the internet. Totem poles were communication devices. Done with or without full bellies.

Posted Thu, Nov 29, 7:37 p.m. Inappropriate

History shows us that intellectual curiousity was most often found where money was lacking. Access to money is important for research, but truly, intellectual curiousity comes from within, not without.

"Intellectual capital can flourish in here when it has access to money to allow its full expression."

Posted Thu, Nov 29, 7:37 p.m. Inappropriate

History shows us that intellectual curiousity was most often found where money was lacking. Access to money is important for research, but truly, intellectual curiousity comes from within, not without.

"Intellectual capital can flourish in here when it has access to money to allow its full expression."

Posted Sat, Dec 1, 10:57 p.m. Inappropriate

Just for perspective on Wells' "doom by flooding" scenario, note that he must have been citing the predicted sea level rise of 25 feet, which is suggested could occur "in coming centuries". The article:

http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2012/11/24/opinion/sunday/what-could-disappear.html

has a clever slider to select the amount of sea level rise to be displayed. Within the next 50 or so years, the rise is much more modest, but of course that doesn't take into account the potential for wind surge combined with tides, such as created the Sandy catastrophe. The south end of the tunnel could be much more vulnerable, methinks off the top.

kmeyer

Posted Tue, Dec 4, 4:35 p.m. Inappropriate

Tunnel Type in floods favors the Cut/cover option with its overall depth about 60' while the bore tunnel depth is 120' or more. More water to pump out. Bore outside perimeter inevitably develops 'trivulets' of water flow in the malleable soils and the voids will flood. One word finale: absurd. PS: disgraceful.

Wells

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