Decrying the lack of accessibility to high-speed internet in rural areas and calling for a more diversified economy, lawmakers and a long list of heavy hitters in the technology industry gathered at the University of Montana on Sunday and Monday for the Montana High Tech Jobs Summit.
The event was co-sponsored by U.S. Sen. Steve Daines, R-Mont., and a host of other businesses and government organizations.
The focus, as the name implies, was on how to attract tech companies to this state, how to remove barriers to business and job creation, and how to improve broadband access in rural Montana, among other things.
In an interview with the Missoulian between moderating panels and emceeing the event, Daines said the goal of the event is to bring better jobs to Montana.
“The high-tech sector is growing seven times faster than the average growth in Montana, and the more important stat is the wages are twice as high as average,” he said. “The Montana High Tech Jobs Summit is an exciting opportunity to highlight Montana’s growing technology sector. Technology has removed geography as a barrier to business, and high-tech companies are increasingly viewing Montana as a place to merge innovative businesses opportunities with an unparalleled quality of life.”
Daines said he’s heard from business leaders that the main barrier to creating more tech jobs here is infrastructure deficiencies.
“Over 60 percent of Montana’s rural areas are underserved with the rural broadband,” he said. “But I think a lot of this is just awareness that you can build a world-class, high-tech company in Montana. I think there’s still too much of a Silicon Valley mindset. And we’ve got these growing number of proof points, case studies that we’re seeing in Montana, that demonstrate that you can build enterprise technology companies that can compete with the very best in the world.”
Mignon Clyburn, the longest-serving commissioner on the Federal Communications Commissions, spoke on stage with Daines about the need to get rural Montanans, and those on underserved tribal lands, access to not only high-speed internet but affordable internet.
“Broadband is a game-changer for those who do not have it,” she said. “In the 21st century, broadband is a necessity for first responders attempting to reach an injured climber in Glacier, for a doctor in Kalispell trying to remotely evaluate patients by videochat, and for the student in Big Sky attempting to do homework.”
She said for most Americans, the challenge of connectivity is not a blip on their radar because it is such an integral part of their daily life.
“But for too many it is at minimum a threat to their educational and economic well-being, and at worst, it is a threat to their lives,” she said.
Clyburn said 30 percent of Montanans have no access to broadband internet. She said she has been advocating for change to the federal government’s regulatory framework to create a “smoother path towards supporting robust broadband deployment.”
“Connecting a house to fiber is one thing, but is it making a service available to the residents?” she asked. “We must ask if they can afford the monthly cost of service. What if they don’t have a computer or understand the relevance of broadband in their lives? The challenges of digital literacy and affordability, in some cases, are more fundamental. Thirteen-thousand Montanans depend on the FCC’s Lifeline Program for affordable connectivity.”
Clyburn said that in Glacier and Rosebud counties, there are high rates of diabetes and very low rates of broadband access. She said that will continue to be a problem, because doctors can’t talk to patients via videoconference.
“We need to make sure our regulatory philosophy and construct is one that enables all these opportunities,” she said.
Brad Smith, the president and chief legal officer for Microsoft, spoke about the history of how technology has changed industries in the United States. He said that in the 1980s, there were two legal secretaries for every lawyer in the country and their job was mainly to type. With the advent of word-processing software and computers, those jobs have largely disappeared. Now, for every eight lawyers in the country, there is one legal assistant. Now, he said, “soft skills” such as people-management skills are necessary for legal assistants.
“People will need to work with other people, so soft skills will be more important than ever before,” he said.
Out of 37,000 high schools in the country last year, only 4,310 offered Advanced Placement computer science classes. Smith said the United States needs to get serious about introducing computer science not only in high schools but in grade schools, because countries like China are already doing that.
“Broadband is the future of jobs,” he said. “And 23 million people in this country live in places without broadband access.”
Montana has a high per capita percentage of military veterans, and Smith said that Microsoft has job-training programs that help vets get trained in things like cloud software management, and then help them get career advice as they look for jobs.
Rep. Greg Gianforte, R-Mont., gave the keynote address. He and Daines are both former executives at a software company in Bozeman called RightNow Technologies before it was sold to Oracle.
Gianforte told the Missoulian that the main goal of the conference was jobs.
“I was thrilled to be a cofounder of the Montana High Tech Business Alliance, pointing out that its office, headed by Christina Quick Henderson, is based in Missoula.
“We now have a lot of great companies, in fact Tom Stergios of ATG (a tech company in Missoula) was on my panel this morning and he’s now at 119 employees trying to get to 120. Average wage is $80,000 and higher. These are great jobs that complement our traditional industries of agriculture and natural resources and tourism. It’s just another cylinder on the economic engine of Montana.”
Daines said that Montana has the potential to attract tech workers because of the state’s natural outdoor recreation opportunities and the fact that commute times are relatively low in the urban centers.
“We actually have one of the highest telecommuting percentages on a per capita basis in the nation,” he said. “And this is the challenge. When I was a kid growing up in Bozeman in the ’60s and ’70s, our geography was viewed in many ways from a business viewpoint more as a liability.”
Today, he said, the state’s geography is viewed very much as an asset.
“And technology has removed geography as a constraint,” he continued. “So we can leverage and use the incredible quality of life — public lands, clean water, clean air, the outdoor recreation experiences – as one of our key competitive differentiations to allow us to win because we can attract and retain the best talent in the world. “
Daines said high-tech companies struggle with “employee churn.”
“They’ll work for one tech company then they jump to the next greener pasture and that churn is very costly and can slow down a high-tech company,” Daines said. “What we’re finding in Montana is that our local high-tech companies, the churn rate is much, much lower. The employees are happier.”
He also said that employees can get more work done in Montana compared to Silicon Valley.
“There’s also the productivity dividend,” he said. “In Silicon Valley, employees commute two hours a day. Here, they commute for 10 minutes. If they’ve got a friend or family member who’s playing in a baseball or soccer game, they can go. The employees are happier here and they can live a much more integrated lifestyle.”