In less than 30 years, Silicon Valley has rocketed to celebrity status. The region serves as the top magnet for innovation, often occupying the coveted #1 position of global hot spot rankings. More of an informal shared experience than a physical place, Silicon Valley capitalizes on being centrally located in the San Francisco Bay Area, a broader regional zone that is an economic powerhouse.
Keeping this leadership position requires constant transformation. The region has weathered and reinvented itself through previous downturns. These next few years, in the wake of what some have termed the Great Recession, will provide another test of economic recovery and relevance.
Based on a recent in-depth research study of global innovation networks, several elements will be essential to the future success of the Bay Area. Two critical but often overlooked factors are specifically community colleges and local demographics. Both are tied directly to people.
Almost any conversation of innovation assumes that the top research institutions are prerequisites. Boston has MIT and Harvard; the Bay Area has Stanford University and the University of California at Berkeley. One university professor said frankly, “Stanford is part of what the outside world sees as part of the Silicon Valley secret.”
These tier-one universities do play a critical role within the local economy, receiving the greatest doses of federal research dollars and enjoying their pick of top young talent. They also soak up the spotlight, so much so that the tiers below them are often ignored by local policymakers.
This elitist mentality dominates the top of the Bay Area food chain. An eminent faculty leader of a biotech institute was astounded when asked about the role of the other local schools for regional growth. He remarked, “We are more focused on the entrepreneurs than the foot soldiers. We kind of believe that [latter] part will take care of itself.”
This kind of thinking is delusional. In truth, community colleges provide the bedrock for the region’s university ecosystem. They channel bright students up the local educational chain, helping train and transfer them to the upper tiers. Within the Bay Area, the Foothill-De Anza Community College has served a diverse student body, which includes a combination of younger, older, and re-entry students, for over 50 years.
In particular, community colleges serve as a gateway to ambitious foreign-born talent. Foothill-De Anza admits more international students than any other community college in the U.S., notes Peter Murray, Foothill’s Dean of Physical Sciences, Mathematics and Engineering. Many of these students from outside the U.S. seek a natural entry to Silicon Valley. Once on a student visa, they aggressively pursue their career interests, often transferring to another state school, such as Stanford or the University of California system, to finish their degrees and join the local workforce. Others gain critical technical skills – such as in database management or bioinformatics – critical to operating sophisticated, technology-based companies.
The community colleges also learn to do more with less. Although state-assisted, Foothill-De Anza funds students at a relatively low rate of $4019 per student, even compared to other national community colleges that average $8041 per student, according to Community College League of California statistics. This is far below what it costs to send students to Berkeley or Stanford.
Most recently, the school’s administration has faced painfully deep state budget cuts, re-juggling curriculum priorities and teaching staff loads. They adjust by being flexible. The community college system recently announced a partnership with the University of California at Santa Cruz with ambitious plans to build a new billion-dollar multi-university campus at the NASA Ames Research Center. Carnegie-Mellon University in Pittsburgh and San Jose State University in San Jose, Calif., have joined the unique venture that mixes private, public, and industry spheres.
The new campus will include a new School of Management, major science laboratories, engineering facilities, classrooms, and homes for 3,000 people on 75 acres. The backers are hopeful that this will lead to a “sustainable community for education and research.” If all goes accordingly to plan, this university will offer a new model of education that combines the best of a local community college, local metropolitan school, two universities at a distance, and a strong industry partner.
Education constitutes only one part of the region’s human capital outlook. Local population trends can reflect the overall strength of the workforce and its ability for continued growth. On a more fundamental level, innovation efforts rest on people who start and grow new ventures. By understanding current demographics, you garner strong hints for future gaps and issues.
Looking just at Silicon Valley, the area’s population grew modestly by 1.6% to a total of 2.6 million residents for 2008, according to the latest Silicon Valley Index. Compared to California and the U.S., Silicon Valley’s population consists of fewer children and more people between working ages (25–64). This combination bodes well for work productivity, but also indicates that many who start families soon drift to other states to raise the next set of young workers.
Silicon Valley does better attracting and retaining foreign talent, who seek new opportunity and prosperity. AnnaLee Saxenian, a dean at the University of California at Berkeley, considers this global migration and circulation to be critical in maintaining regional advantage. Foreign immigration has driven Silicon Valley’s population growth. Looking solely at U.S. Census data estimates for the period of 2000 and 2003, foreign migration to the metropolitan cluster of San Francisco, Oakland, and Fremont rose by 10 percent each year, while domestic migration dropped by nearly 14 percent on average.
Another good sign is that foreign students, particularly those receiving degrees in science and engineering, continue to stay higher in Silicon Valley than other U.S. regions. Unfortunately, when the student visas end, many of these bright workers, who would otherwise stay in the area, take their skills and dreams back home.
More worrying, college graduates – both foreign and domestic – are leaving the region on their own volition. No city in the greater Bay Area sits in the top 20 list of places to work after college. If American youth are relocating to other areas, then the region may be destined to simply age in place. Local parents in my recent research study simply did not make the connection that nearly all their grown children lived elsewhere – and what that implication entailed for long-term regional vitality.
Part of this difference in understanding can be explained by generational biases. Each generation brings a dominant set of traits that shape the tone and direction for local innovation. Baby Boomers (born 1943–1960) are focused on their own pursuits. Even when retired, Boomers stay active as consultants and independent contractors, partly to offset decreased life savings as well as enjoy a self-sufficient lifestyle. Often criticized for being narcissistic, they can help to influence innovation activities for others through policy and funding decisions. A senior research policymaker said emphatically, “What are we going to do for the generations out ahead of us? That’s what I care more about than anything.”
Generation X (born 1961–1981) is the most entrepreneurial generation in U.S. history, but the smallest in size, so policymakers easily overlook them. Certain tensions exist with the prior generation. Research from Neil Howe and William Strauss show that the Boomers are increasingly resisting the decisions made by Gen X to the point of overlooking their contributions in favor of the next generation.
This is a drastic mistake for two reasons. First, the average age for a U.S.-born technology entrepreneur to start a company is 39, which sits squarely in Gen X. This generation has already become the primary engine for Silicon Valley. Second, this generation has the best academic training and international experience in American history. They may be small in their weight class, but Gen X packs a hefty punch overall. The challenge will be for the Bay Area to retain this population group, as their family and career needs shift.
In contrast, the Millennials (born 1982–2005) are generally focused on social bonding, authority approval, and civic duty – attributes that may make parents happy, but do not usually drive new economic growth. As the largest generation in American history, they are proving to be massive consumers of technology and social advocates. By and large, Millennials steer away from high-risk ventures, preferring community-oriented activities, and they bring a different set of demands to the Bay Area.
In the innovation lifecycle, if Boomers serve as advisors and Gen Xers as the entrepreneurs, then the Millennials could provide potent networkers. Each plays an essential role in regional growth, and all frequently vote with their feet. The critical question is whether the Bay Area is positioned to retain the right workforce mix to harness its next turnaround, or whether the dynamism will shift to other regions both in America and abroad.
Tamara Carleton is a doctoral student at Stanford University, studying innovation culture and technology visions. She is also a Fellow of the Foundation for Enterprise Development and the Bay Area Science and Innovation Consortium.