America’s Off-The-Radar Tech Hubs


At the moment, the technology sector is the focus of a lot of attention — and with good reason. Tech industries have helped turn San Jose and Austin into major economies and brought other large metros, like Detroit, through tough spells. But which small, off-the-radar towns out there also deserve recognition as technology hubs?

To explore this question, we analyzed 70 high-tech occupations identified by BLS economist Daniel E. Hecker. The list includes everything from computer systems analysts to forest and conservation technicians. Many of the highlighted economies contain a strong contingent of one or two of these occupations, while other occupations may not be especially concentrated in the region.

In order to locate these economies, we had to explore some obscure parts of EMSI’s extensive database. For one thing, we removed cities with very large populations since many of them would come as no surprise. (We already know that Seattle, San Jose, and Austin are capitals of the tech sector.) Cities with very small numbers of tech workers were also cut from the list; if an influx of 10 tech workers could radically shift the economy, it can be hard to gauge whether or not the industry is really growing.

We chose to highlight MSAs that have 1,000-50,000 jobs in the industry, have grown by more than 10% since 2001 and more than 0% since 2010, and also have promising concentration (measured by location quotient, LQ). Another factor that we took into account is whether or not the industry grew during the recession (2007-09). After applying all these filters to our data, we chose 11 MSAs which have exhibited impressive growth but which have also, for the most part, sneaked under the radar.

The list starts with Los Alamos, N.M., and Williston, N.D., which have already gained attention for their growing economies. Then we’ll move from smallest to largest MSA, examining a key tech occupation in each.

Los Alamos, New Mexico

Population: 18,294

Tech workers: 4,559 jobs

Highlighted tech occupation: Biochemists and Biophysicists (410)

Why you should be watching: Tech occupations in Los Alamos have skyrocketed in the last 11 years, with a gobsmacking 325% growth since 2001. Currently, the city has a concentration of tech workers almost six times that of the nation. The median wage of these workers is $51.47/hr, which is much higher than the average for the occupation.

Between 2005 and 2007, Los Alamos gained 3,750 jobs in the tech sector. The occupations barely dipped during the recession and have remained steady since, with only a slight decline in the last year.

What’s causing all these insane numbers? Obviously, the Los Alamos National Laboratory. As an example of just how unique this city is, consider this fact: there are 252 nuclear technicians in Los Alamos. The LQ for that occupation in the region is 254.42. Basically, this means that if nuclear technicians were as concentrated nationwide as they are in Los Alamos, they would make up the 10th largest occupation in the United States, with 2,184,588 jobs.

Williston, North Dakota

Population: 25,107

Tech workers: 926 jobs

Highlighted tech occupation: Petroleum Engineers (211)

Why you should be watching: The number of tech workers in Williston has grown 324% since 2001, and 93% in the last three years. Although there are only 928 workers, they are getting paid a median hourly wage of $46.29 and those paychecks have already had significant economic impact on the state. That’s what an oil boom will do for you.

As you can see, there are twice as many petroleum engineers as the next largest tech occupation. And the second largest occupation is geological and petroleum technicians, which are also involved in the oil industry.

Los Alamos and Williston are not really surprises when it comes to tech centers. Both have appeared in the news for several years now as emerging economies. As we look at these other regional economies and evaluate them as potential tech hubs, we can compare them to the exploding economies of Los Alamos and Williston.

Susanville, California

Population: 34,019

Tech workers: 1,258 jobs

Highlighted tech occupation: Forest and Conservation Technicians (761)

Why you should be watching: Susanville is another one of those cities with growth in a lot of different areas. The fact that it is a logging town keeps the economy tied to local industries and helps it stay well-rounded. The most impressive thing about Susanville is that during the recession, the number of tech workers grew by 18%.

Whenever we find an industry or occupation that grew during the recession, we usually discover that it was strongly supported by the government. Susanville is no different. According to EMSI’s inverse staffing pattern, the government sector accounts for 95% of all tech-related occupations. Below are the three government industries and their portions of tech occupations:

  • Federal government, civilian, excluding postal service (65.7%)
  • State government, excluding education and hospitals (25.6%)
  • Local government, excluding education and hospitals (3.2%)

It’s not too surprising that the regional economy has been doing so well.

Pullman, Washington

Population: 45.4K

Tech workers: 1,299 jobs

Highlighted tech occupation: Electrical Engineers (163)

Why you should be watching: Small economies sometimes have a better chance of withstanding economic recession because they can be self-contained. This is especially true of Pullman, where the economy is almost entirely driven by two forces: Washington State University and Schweitzer Engineering Laboratories. Even with a mere 1,283 tech jobs in the area, the sector grew 38% since 2001 and, more impressively, 9% during the recession.

The line graph displays the increase of electrical engineers since 2001. While 163 jobs might not seem like very much, the growth is dramatic enough to warrant comment.

St. Marys, Georgia

Population: 50,957

Tech workers: 992 jobs

Highlighted tech occupation: Civil Engineers (136)

Why you should be watching: Out of the MSAs we examined for this report, St. Marys has the most consistent growth across the board. The tech sector has grown 88% since 2001 and 50% since 2010, increasing the LQ by 0.53 in the last eleven years. Most of this growth is probably caused by the Naval Submarine Base Kings Bay, but the occupations that have grown are quite varied.

The table below shows the top five industries for tech occupations in St. Marys. As you can see, engineering services is at the top of the list, followed by federal government, civilian.

NAICS Industry Occupation Group Jobs in Industry (2012) % of Occupation Group in Industry (2012) % of Total Jobs in Industry (2012)
541330 Engineering Services 468 47.2% 52.3%
901199 Federal Government, Civilian, Excluding Postal Service 194 19.6% 8.5%
336414 Guided Missile and Space Vehicle Manufacturing 100 10.1% 18.9%
541519 Other Computer Related Services 37 3.8% 42.7%
524114 Direct Health and Medical Insurance Carriers 29 2.9% 8.1%

Engineering services accounts for the most tech jobs in the region (468 jobs), and government jobs come next with 194 tech jobs. Guided missile and space vehicle manufacturing are tied to the government as well, as most of that research is probably happening at the Naval Submarine Base.

Helena, Montana

Population: 76,801

Tech workers: 3,109 jobs

Highlighted tech occupation: Forest and Conservation Technicians (371)

Why you should be watching: Helena is another one of those plucky economies that refused to buckle during the recession. Helena has a quite a few tech workers (3,144 in 2012), but they are spread out evenly over many occupations. Since Helena is the state capital, the largest employer of tech workers is the state government (comprising 1,321 jobs), but the tech sector as a whole grew almost 12% in the last three years.

Forest and conservation technicians account for 371 jobs in the tech sector, followed by civil engineers at 336 jobs. Forest and conservation technicians grew 48% growth since 2001 (most of that taking place 2005-2009. It’s easier to understand this growth knowing that 96% of the forest and conservation technician jobs in Helena are in state or federal government.

Dubuque, Iowa

Population: 95.5K

Tech workers: 3,041 jobs

Highlighted tech occupation: Software Developers, Systems Software (430)

Why you should be watching: Dubuque has seen strong growth among tech workers in the last ten years, especially in software developers. Since 2010, the tech economy has increased by 3,126 jobs. Many of these jobs are due to the presence of IBM’s Global Delivery Center and other developing tech companies. Dubuque is currently #8 on Forbes’ list of best small places for businesses and careers.

Lexington Park, Maryland

Population: 109,409

Tech Workers: 7,789 jobs

Highlighted tech occupation: Electronics Engineers, Except Computer (1,438)

Why you should be watching: During the recession, Lexington Park’s proximity to D.C. propped up its economy. The city grew 9% from 2007 to 2009, but its tech industry has grown 5.2% since then. Tech workers are 3.48 times more concentrated in Lexington Park than in the rest of the nation, for which the city can thank the Patuxent Naval Air Station.

This graph represents the top industries for electronics engineers, except computer engineers, in Lexington Park. All together, the industries staffed by electronics engineers have increased 56%, compared to 16% in the 50 largest metropolitan statistical areas and 19% in the nation as a whole. Most of this growth has occurred in research and development in the physical, engineering, and life sciences (NAICS 541712), which has seen 93% since 2001, and in engineering services, which has seen 84% growth since 2001.

Midland, Texas

Population: 143.4K

Tech workers: 4,484 jobs

Highlighted tech occupation: Petroleum Engineers (927)

Why you should be watching: The 4,484 tech jobs in Midland aren’t the most impressive thing about the city. What is impressive is the 23.4% growth in the last three years and the $42.76 hourly wage. A increase of 83% since 2001 is nothing to snort at either. That’s what the oil industry will do for you.

The line graph below represents the growth of petroleum engineers since 2001. The blue line stands for the Midland MSA. Green stands for all 11 tech centers highlighted in this post. Brown and red stand for the 50 largest MSAs in the nation and the nation as a whole, respectively.

Despite the fact that petroleum engineers drive the Midland economy, the 11 tech centers have increased in petroleum engineers slightly faster. Both are significantly ahead of the nation as a whole, however. What’s not reflected on this chart is the fact that the petroleum engineers occupation in Midland has a regional LQ of 45.16. With such a high concentration of a single occupation, Midland’s economy is primed for expansion as other industries and occupations rush in to support the oil industry.

Trenton, New Jersey

Population: 368.9K

Tech workers: 17,573 jobs

Highlighted tech occupation: Software Developers, Applications (2,899)

Why you should be watching: The Trenton-Ewing area used to be a big hub for manufacturing jobs, but has since shifted its focus. Government, health care, and technology are currently the largest industries in the area. Tech workers have increased 11% since 2001 and grew 3% during the recession, and workers earn a median wage of $41.23/hr.

Trenton’s highlighted tech occupation is software developers, which is spread out over several different industries. Here are the five industries that employ the most software developers in Trenton-Ewing.

Custom computer programming services has gained quite a few software developers and investment banking and securities dealing has more than doubled its numbers. Software publishers take the cake with an increase of zero to 160 since 2001.

Madison, Wisconsin

Population: 583.8K

Tech workers: 25,597 jobs

Highlighted tech occupation: Computer Support Specialists (3,827)

Why you should be watching: Madison has 26,722 tech workers and grew 28% over the last 10 years. It could be hard to maintain such a high concentration of tech workers, but the LQ of tech workers in Madison has grown from 1.31 in 2001 to 1.61 in 2012. Madison is currently #89 on Forbes’ list of the Best Places for Business and Careers and #38 in job growth.

The complete data is reproduced below.

Metropolitan Statistical Area 2012 Jobs 2001-12 % Change 2007-09 % Change 2010-12 % Change Median Hourly Earnings 2001 Location Quotient 2012 Location Quotient LQ Change
Source: QCEW Employees, Non-QCEW Employees & Self-Employed - EMSI 2013.1 Class of Worker
Los Alamos, NM (31060) 4,585 325% -2% -3.8% $51.47 2.42 5.91 3.49
Williston, ND (48780) 928 324% 24% 93.7% $46.29 0.47 0.65 0.18
St. Marys, GA (41220) 974 88% -3% 49.8% $34.02 0.55 1.08 0.53
Midland, TX (33260) 4,488 83% 4% 23.4% $42.76 0.88 1.17 0.29
Susanville, CA (45000) 1,246 74% 18% 0.7% $22.42 1.42 2.41 0.99
Dubuque, IA (20220) 3,126 63% 1% 12.8% $30.96 0.75 1.10 0.35
Lexington Park, MD (30500) 7,659 55% 9% 5.2% $45.26 2.62 3.48 0.86
Helena, MT (25740) 3,144 39% 7% 11.9% $25.99 1.36 1.53 0.17
Pullman, WA (39420) 1,283 38% 9% 9.3% $33.67 1.10 1.37 0.27
Madison, WI (31540) 26,722 28% 2% 5.7% $32.57 1.31 1.61 0.30
Trenton-Ewing, NJ (45940) 17,887 11% 3% 0.2% $41.23 1.48 1.59 0.11

Christian Leithart is a tech writer with EMSI. Follow them on Twitter @DesktopEcon.