Will Tech Jobs Move to Lewis County?

By Claudia Yaw

The (Centralia) Chronicle

In campaigning for County Commission Districts 1 and 2, commissioners-elect Sean Swope and Lindsey Pollock identified a common goal of bringing Seattle- and Portland-area tech jobs to Lewis County. It’s “low-hanging fruit,” Swope said, noting that the rural county has barely any representation in one of Washington’s biggest industries. Pollock added that people are already looking to escape cities and get more space and bringing the industry to Lewis County could be a major economic boost.

It’s no secret that Seattle-area tech workers are moving into less urban spaces. Tens of thousands of Amazon jobs have been permanently moved to Bellevue, a suburb where the tech giant plans to build an office space, and COVID-19 has prompted some companies to allow employees to work remotely from their suburban homes even after the pandemic ends.

But shortfalls like Lewis County’s lack of ready housing and reliable internet access could make those goals harder to achieve.

The incoming commissioners don’t have a detailed plan, but they say drawing in the tech industry will require marketing Lewis County as family-friendly, fast-tracking urban growth, and figuring out exactly what else tech companies are looking for.

According to Keena Bean, a spokesperson at Seattle company Zipwhip, what makes a good tech hub is amenities. Zipwhip’s headquarters, in the city’s Queen Anne neighborhood, offers everything employees need within walking distance.

“Tech workers are working 12 hours a day, so easy access to great food options, multiple food options, health and fitness opportunities, the fitness studios, salons,” Kristen Spoljaric, Senior VP of Human Operations said. “Those things get built out around the tech locations so employees don’t have to leave.”

But Zipwhip has also seen employees opt to work remotely, and workers have expressed interest in more rural areas, where they can get more space for less money. Ookla, a Seattle internet metrics company, had about a quarter of their workforce working from home even before the pandemic. Now, Ookla marketing VP Adriane Blum said as COVID-19 shuts down bars and venues, some workers are asking “Why am I here if I can’t use the city or utilize everything it has to offer?”

Just because employees are moving to less urban areas doesn’t necessarily mean companies will follow them to open up a more rural satellite office, noted Zipwhip spokesperson Keena Bean.

Recruiting workers, not businesses

“Maybe for Lewis County, the question isn’t ‘how do I recruit a business,’ but ‘how do I recruit individual workers?’” she said.

When asked if she’s looking to pull in a satellite office or individual remote-work jobs, Pollock said she’d like to see both. Musing with the concept of satellite locations, she spitballed one idea, saying “Downtown Winlock’s got broadband capabilities, and they’ve got plenty of empty buildings … Off the cuff I’m thinking ‘hey, maybe that could be attractive.’”

She can also imagine Lewis County residents filling high-paying jobs that are now remote because of the pandemic. But there’s a question of whether those jobs will stay remote once the pandemic is over. Companies like Ookla say yes, but some expect the tech industry to move back to traditional in-person work once it’s safe to do so.

Dan Hagen is one example. He teaches information technology at Centralia College and has a long history of working in tech, including as the state attorney general’s IT operations manager.

“There will be some companies that are on the cutting edge, the avant-guards who are going to allow semi-permanent remote work, but the vast majority, and certainly the state, they’re not going to,” Hagen said. “I can’t guarantee that but I would bet you a lot of money.”

If that’s the case, Hagen said Lewis County’s best bet is to convince a company to open up a satellite location here. It would be an easier lift in terms of getting internet connectivity, too, as it’s more cost-effective to extend broadband to a corporate office than individual homes spread out across the county.

The Prerequisites: Internet and Housing

Swope, who makes a living in marketing, says Lewis County has serious potential if it markets itself as a place for young people to raise their families: lots of space, a low cost of living, and a location situated squarely between Seattle and Portland. But before trying to entice tech workers into the area, the county needs to overcome its lack of housing and internet access.

The county has struggled with internet access for decades. This year, as the pandemic exacerbated the “digital divide”, county officials scrambled to get hotspots and more permanent internet solutions to the estimated 23 percent of the population that lacks reliable connection.

“If we don’t keep pushing a broadband expansion for Lewis County to get us into the 21st century, we’re never going to get to the 21st century in many other ways, including the job market,” Hagen said.

The way he sees it, people and the tech industry won’t want to come to Lewis County until the internet problem is resolved. Swope, on the other hand, reckons that more people need to move in to make internet expansion economically viable in a way, it’s a chicken-and-the-egg situation.

Critics say that the county’s work to expand internet access has been piecemeal, like putting bandaids on a bullet wound. Commissioners incoming and outgoing don’t disagree.

“The bandaids people are referring to, we have no illusions about that. We understand that,” Commissioner Bobby Jackson said in a pre-election interview with The Chronicle. “We’re not going to be able to help everybody. That’s just the way it is.”

Pollock echoed the sentiment, saying, “I don’t know if we can do anything different right at the moment.”

Some argue that the county should try to replicate Toledo’s success in expanding residential internet through local provider ToledoTel. Swope is confident that billionaire Tech Mogul Elon Musk’s “Starlink” satellite program, currently in its beta phase, will eventually catapult Lewis County into the 21st century “I know it’s going to be our saving grace,” Swope said.

While Blum said Ookla would be open to hiring talent in Lewis County to work remotely, she also noted that subpar connectivity would likely be a “barrier to entry” for qualified applicants.

Blum estimated that a typical remote tech worker needs a download speed of at least 75 megabits per second (Mbps), and an upload speed of 100 Mbps. And video conferencing, which can take up a good chunk of the work day, can be the most demanding in terms of download and upload speeds.

Those numbers are a stretch for much of Lewis County. In Winlock, Mayor Brandon Svenson used Speedtest, and Ookla software, to gauge internet speeds at city hall 20 Mbps was the download speed. Speedtest gauged The Chronicle’s newsroom to have a download speed of about 73 Mbps.

If Lewis County does overcome the hurdle of internet connectivity, then there’s the question of where incoming tech workers will live.

Lee Napier, the county’s community development director, noted that there’s a housing shortage nation-wide according to the Census Bureau, the U.S. has a 6.4 percent rental vacancy rate as of October. Lewis County’s just 1 percent vacancy rate is especially “shocking,” said Meja Handlen, Housing Coordinator for Lewis County Public Health and Social Services. “We just need housing all across the board.”

According to the county’s strategic plan, the shortage “impedes businesses from relocating to the county, due to the inability to house existing workers of various wage levels.” One of the county’s strategies is to expedite housing projects and streamline the zoning and permitting process.

When Handlin moved to Lewis County 20 years ago, she said it was fairly easy to find a place. Since then, she’s seen things change.

“Rental house? Good luck,” she said. “If you’ve got a husband, wife, partner, or a couple of kids? Oh my gosh, good luck.”

Although the shortage limits the amount of new workers that can move in, Hagen said there’s good news: the talent is already here.

Centralia College’s four-year program in information technology and app development will always be overshadowed by the University of Washington, Hagen said. He characterized the public university, with its nationally-ranked computer science program, as “the 800 pound gorilla in the state.” And the UW offers Seattle-are companies a qualified talent pool within arm’s reach.

Although Lewis County has students interested in tech, Hagen said they’re often overlooked. And sometimes it’s hard to rope them into the program when they don’t see the industry represented in their community.

“The perception of the county being tech-starved on multiple levels, from bandwidth to talent to jobs to companies, it becomes a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy,” he said. “If no one will invest here, then how do we bootstrap this process into another level?”

Right now, Hagen said his students are poised to go to Olympia to work for the state, just like he did, and commute the 30-plus minutes each way. If private industry could move into Lewis County, set up a satellite office, and offer those workers a job closer to home, Hagen thinks it could be a turning point.

“If you’re going to give me back an hour of my life everyday and pay me a reasonably similar wage that the state’s paying, my ears are pricked open. I’m interested,” he said.