Even before Steve Jobs crashed the scene in late 1970s, California’s technology industry had already outpaced the entire world, creating the greatest collection of information companies anywhere. It was in this fertile suburban soil that Apple — and so many other innovative companies — took root.
Now this soil is showing signs of exhaustion, with Jobs’ death symbolizing the end of the state’s high-tech heroic age.
“Steve’s passing really makes you think how much the Valley has changed,” says Leslie Parks, former head of economic development for the city of San Jose, Silicon Valley’s largest city. “The Apple II was produced here and depended on what was unique here. In those days, we were the technology food chain from conception to product. Now we only dominate the top of the chain.”
Silicon Valley’s job creation numbers are dismal. In 1999 the San Jose-Sunnyvale-Santa Clara area had over 1 million jobs; by 2010 that number shrank by nearly 150,000. Although since 2007 and early 2010 the number of information jobs has increased substantially — up roughly 5000 to a total of 46,000 — the industrial sector, which still employs almost four times as many people as IT, lost around 12,000. Overall the region’s unemployment stands at 10%, well above the national average of 9.1%.
This is partly because Apple, Intel and Hewlett-Packard have shifted their production — which offered jobs to many lower- and medium-skilled Californians — to other states or overseas. With its focus just at the highest end, the Valley no longer represents the economically diverse region of the 1970s and 1980s. Indeed, it increasingly resembles Wall Street — with a few highly skilled employees and well-placed investors making out swimmingly.
“Silicon Valley has become hyper-efficient; the region doesn’t create jobs anymore,” says Tamara Carleton, a locally based fellow at the Foundation for Enterprise Development. “In terms of revenue per employee, Facebook’s ratio is unprecedented. Even Apple hasn’t grown significantly this last decade, despite the successful launch of many products and services. While commendable, greater efficiency doesn’t put more jobs in the California economy.”
This “hyper-efficiency” can be seen in the real state of the valley’s industrial/flex space market. The overall industrial vacancy rate remains 14%, two points higher than in 2009. Areas close to Stanford, such as Palo Alto and Mountain View, have done well, but others on the periphery, such as Gilroy, Milpitas and Fremont, and even parts of San Jose have vacancies reaching over 20%.
California’s other high-tech centers, with the possible exception of San Diego, are doing worse. The state has been losing high-tech employment over the past decade, while such employment has surged not only in China and Korea, but also in competitor states such as Texas, Virginia, Washington and Utah. According to the annual Cyberstates study, California lost more high-tech jobs — about 18,000 — last year than any other state.
California’s political leaders, particularly Democrats, still genuflect toward the Valley for economic salvation and job growth. But social media has not proved a jobs-creating dynamo, and it’s clear that the highly subsidized, venture backed “green economy” has floundered miserably and faces a less than rosy future.
You can feel pride, as an American and Californian, in the legacy of the likes of Steve Jobs but also believe our future cannot be salvaged by high-tech alone. Many of the country’s greatest assets, for example, are physical; in California these include the best climate for any advanced region in the world, fertile soil, a prime location on the Pacific Rim and potentially huge fossil fuel energy reserves, which give it enormous competitive advantages.
The green theocracy now in control of Sacramento, however, has little interest in these aspects of California. It may prove difficult, if not impossible, to modernize the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, prolific sources of good-paying white and blue collar jobs. These ports will soon face increased competition for Asian trade from Gulf and south Atlantic locales eagerly waiting for the 2014 widening of the Panama Canal.
Administration officials such as Energy Secretary Steven Chu also slate the state’s agriculture for demise by climate change. But just in case he’s wrong, we should note that California’s agriculture — despite green attempts to cut off its water supply — accounts for 40% of state exports. It generates $12.7 billion annually in overseas sales and employs over 400,000 people directly and many thousands more in marketing, processing and warehousing.
Similarly, California boasts some of the nation’s richest deposits of oil and gas, not only on its sensitive and politically nettlesome coast but along the coastal plains and in the Central Valley. The most recent estimates of the state’s reserves, according to the Energy Information Agency, include nearly 3 billion cubic feet of natural gas and more than three billion barrels of oil, roughly the same as Alaska and more than booming North Dakotas.
Geologists and wildcatters, usually ahead of the game, believe we have touched only a small part of the state’s energy potential. Some discuss new oil shale discoveries, particularly in the Monterey region, that could dwarf even the massive Bakken find in North Dakota. “If you were in Texas,” quipped economist Bill Watkins to an audience in the hard-hit central California town of Santa Maria, a predominately Latino town north of Santa Barbara, “you’d be rich.”
A judicious and carefully planned expansion of these resources, particularly in the less populated interior areas, could provide tens of thousands of high-paying jobs. It would also funnel desperately needed revenue to the state. At the same time, such development could forestall much higher energy costs, one of the things driving manufacturers in the state to move elsewhere.
California is unlikely to take advantage of its physical bounty; its leadership seems to lack enthusiasm for any industrial expansion outside of the “green” economy. Industrial parks across the state are emptying, more houses go into foreclosure and local governments wither on the vine. Unless California begins to take its own economy seriously, it will continue to devolve from the aspirational place that produced not only Steve Jobs but scores of entrepreneurs in everything from movies and oil to agriculture and aerospace.
The Valley itself will likely do fine. Steve Jobs helped cement the position of Santa Clara Valley as the epicenter of the high-tech world. But this accomplishment does relatively little for the rest of California. What we will miss will not only be Steve Jobs’ creative contributions, but how clearly his opportunistic, entrepreneurial spirit has ebbed away from the Golden State.