Reimagining the Economy

Silicon Valley congressman on distributing tech jobs across the country

David Brancaccio and Rose Conlon Aug 12, 2020
Heard on: Marketplace Morning Report
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U.S. Rep. Ro Khanna, Democrat of California. Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images
Reimagining the Economy

Silicon Valley congressman on distributing tech jobs across the country

David Brancaccio and Rose Conlon Aug 12, 2020
U.S. Rep. Ro Khanna, Democrat of California. Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images
HTML EMBED:
COPY

The economic mess caused by the coronavirus crisis has not been evenly distributed across American industry, and the tech sector has remained largely sheltered from the worst of the recession.

But that shouldn’t fool us into thinking everything is fine, according to Rep. Ro Khanna, a Democrat representing California’s Silicon Valley.

Before the pandemic, Khanna was urging business leaders and policymakers to consider avenues for distributing the wealth and opportunity currently centered in his own district more equitably around the country. He says COVID-19 has only exposed the urgency of expanding access to the innovation economy.

“I think we have to realize we’re going through a technology revolution that has benefited certain parts of this country, but a lot of people have been left out. And we have not been intentional about getting people a pathway to these jobs of the future,” Khanna said in an interview with “Marketplace Morning Report” host David Brancaccio.

The first of Khanna’s prescriptions sounds simple: building out broadband infrastructure so that everyone has access to high-speed internet.

But he also points to the need to reimagine education, credentialing and recruitment for tech jobs.

“It doesn’t have to always be a four-year degree. It could be a four-month [or] nine-month course. But it has to be in collaboration with the private sector and skills that are employable,” Khanna said.

“And then we need incentives and imaginative policies that are going to get people to take a chance in recruiting from places where tech companies haven’t gone. There’s a lot of talent out there, but some of the recruiting has been myopic. We’ve overlooked historically Black colleges and universities, for example.”

If this all seems a little odd coming from the representative of a district that has overwhelmingly reaped the benefits of tech’s geographical concentration, Khanna is quick to point out the challenges that have come with it.

“The irony is that I don’t think people in my district want the expansion in the way that it’s taken place. That has put huge pressure on our traffic. It’s put huge pressure on housing prices,” he said. “What we’re saying is, not every part of the expansion needs to be in our communities. I think it’s actually an unhealthy balance.”

And Khanna said the present moment, when most tech companies have been forced to adopt remote workflows, might be particularly ripe for this push to distribute tech jobs away from coastal cities.

“The benefit of this for our country is that it also may start to stitch our nation back together. Imagine if people in rural communities and in heavily minority communities were working together with people in coastal communities. I’m not saying that it’s going to paper over all the differences, but we may develop a better understanding of each other and work together to build wealth,” Khanna said.


The following is an edited transcript of the conversation between Khanna and Brancaccio.

David Brancaccio: What is a Californian like you doing in oh, I don’t know, Paintsville, Kentucky, or Beckley, West Virginia?

Ro Khanna: Well, my thesis has been that we have to expand access to the innovation economy. Imagine if manufacturing were just in four or five superstar cities — we would never have seen the rise of the middle class in this country. Manufacturing’s footprint was in almost every state, in so many different counties. Why can’t we build that vision for the tech and innovation economy? Especially given how important that it’s become, and that’s become obvious post the COVID pandemic. It’s the sector that is growing. Its GDP contribution is already equal to manufacturing. It’s got about 12 million jobs. And we need to distribute those jobs across the country. And my view is, if we have strong high-speed internet, if we have the right partnerships with community colleges and tech credentialing, we can create many good-paying jobs in the tech sector across this country.

Brancaccio: Because the infrastructure isn’t fully there, in some places.

Khanna: Exactly. I think the high-speed internet — that’s just the table stakes. I mean, we need that, and there are many places in this country, in rural communities and minority communities, that don’t have that.

But beyond that, we need to think about the right kind of credentialing for folks. It doesn’t have to always be a four-year degree. It could be a four-month [or] nine-month course. But it has to be in collaboration with the private sector and skills that are employable. And then we need incentives and imaginative policies that are going to get people to take a chance in recruiting from places where tech companies haven’t gone. There’s a lot of talent out there, but some of the recruiting has been myopic. We’ve overlooked historically Black colleges and universities, for example. This needs to be a systematic policy framework for expanding access.

Brancaccio: When you put a dollar figure to what you’d like to do, you’re not fooling around. It has a T at the beginning — trillion.

Khanna: Yeah. There are different aspects of it. I think $80 billion would get you high-speed internet. One of the things we have proposed, which Simon Johnson and John Gruber have written about, is why don’t we create tech hubs across this country? Take investment around our great research universities across the Midwest, across the South, and create new technology hubs. They don’t all have to be digital. They could be in the local industry, but bringing in innovation to that local industry. And this would create the ecosystem for thousands of new jobs in that area. I think we have to realize we’re going through a technology revolution that has benefited certain parts of this country, but a lot of people have been left out. And we have not been intentional about getting people a pathway to these jobs of the future.

Brancaccio: And I suppose there’s the argument that it’s not like our global competition has forgotten about this, either.

Khanna: Absolutely not. China, of course, is trying to hook up 99% of its country to the high-speed internet. They’re putting $2.5 trillion in infrastructure in the next five years, which includes building out universities, which includes investment and the latest technology. For all of the paranoia about China, one of the ironies is we’re not doing the things that actually are going to make us the most competitive. And that’s not just militarily — that is making sure that we’re leading in the technologies of the future; that we’re creating those jobs in the United States instead of letting them go offshore; and that we’re matching the capital investments, the human capital investments, that China is making so that we can lead the 21st century.

Brancaccio: Now, I’ll try not to mention that we had this conversation to anybody in your district, but on their behalf, I have to ask: Why not hog all the jobs for Northern California?

Khanna: The irony is that I don’t think people in my district want the expansion in the way that it’s taken place. I mean, that has put huge pressure on our traffic. It’s put huge pressure on housing prices. Try buying a house in my district. It’s very difficult. It costs almost $3,000 a month just to rent an apartment. It’s putting a tremendous amount of pressure for working families to be able to live there. So no one is saying that we shouldn’t have the headquarters in our district. And we love the fact that we have all of these tech companies. Now, some can emerge in other places. But what we’re saying is, not every part of the expansion needs to be in our communities. I think it’s actually an unhealthy balance. It’s unhealthy for our own district, given skyrocketing housing costs and traffic, and it’s unhealthy for the rest of the country where they haven’t had access to these jobs.

Brancaccio: And you do work closely with the companies themselves. They’re up for a nationwide system of regional tech hubs?

Khanna: Well, in candor, I would say that they were skeptical of the idea before COVID. I mean, they would try to do a few initiatives, but there was a skepticism about remote work. I think they’ve been pleasantly surprised that remote work has proven to be as effective as it has. Now, there are drawbacks. Some projects take a little longer. You still need to congregate in physical spaces for cutting-edge research. But most of these companies have found that they can have a workforce that is more remote, and I think that’s going to make them more open to distributing their workforce, especially when they factor in the price of commercial real estate.

The benefit of this for our country is that it also may start to stitch our nation back together. Imagine if people in rural communities and in heavily minority communities were working together with people in coastal communities. I’m not saying that it’s going to paper over all the differences, but we may develop a better understanding of each other and work together to build wealth. And I think that’s something that can slowly stitch this country back together.

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