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Tech firms seek a place in economy's spotlight

Intel is well-known, but other companies fly under the radar


by: TIMES PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Sam Blackman of Elemental Technologies wants to get the word out about the growing number of successful high-tech companies in the region.There are more high-tech companies in the Portland area than Intel — and many of them are desperately trying to get that message out.

“There’s a ton of world-class companies in the Portland region, but the word hasn’t gotten out on that,” says Sam Blackman, co-founder and CEO of Elemental Technologies, a Portland-based company working on ultra-high definition signal transmission technology.

According to Blackman, the lack of awareness of all the regional high-tech companies makes it hard for them to recruit the most talented employees for start-up companies like his. Many potential workers take jobs with companies in San Jose, Calif., and Seattle instead, primarily because of their reputations as high-tech innovation centers.

“Employees want to believe if their companies fail, they can find work at another company without having to move. So they take jobs in San Jose and Seattle instead of Portland,” says Blackman, whose business is located in an older downtown office building.

The resulting talent shortage is holding back many of the smaller companies in the region, Blackman thinks.

“I hate to put it this way, but it’s a war for talent and we’re losing,” says Blackman, who is leading an effort among the companies to brand Portland as Tech Town.

As Blackman sees it, Portland actually has more to offer such employees than San Jose and Seattle. First, jobs are available at other companies, just like in those cities. Equally important, the cost of living is less in Portland, meaning the employees keep more of their earnings. And the quality of life is better than either San Jose or Seattle, thanks to Oregon’s land-use planning laws, preserved natural lands and well-planned communities.

True picture emerging

Blackman shared his thoughts at the Oregon Business Plan Leadership Summit last Monday. Speaking to the hundreds of political, business and community leaders who gathered at the Oregon Convention Center, he called for an organized effort to get the word out about the true scope of high-tech businesses in the state.

“The message needs to be, you can enjoy a wonderful quality of life and also have a good job here,” Blackman says,

He also spoke at a news conference held at the summit to release a new study on one subset of high-tech companies in Oregon — information communication technology production and services. It found the ICT industry included around 3,000 firms with about 58,000 workers and an annual payroll of approximately $6 billion.

The study was commission by the Oregon Business Council, the Technology Association of Oregon and Oregon State University. Other findings reveal that the average wages of ICT workers are twice the state average. The study also found the industry is growing rapidly in the state, with 40 percent of ICT jobs in firms that are new to Oregon since 2001. Measured by gross domestic product, the ICT industry in the Portland metropolitan area is the fastest growing in the country.

Other companies include: Prolifiq, Act-On, Axiom EPM, and Biamp Systems in Beaverton; Zapproved and Salesforce.com in Hillsboro; and NuTech Software Solutions in Tigard.

All of which bolsters Blackman’s case that the Portland metropolitan region is a viable alternative to San Jose and Seattle for high-tech workers.

by: TIMES PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Good planning and alternative transportation system are a big draw for high-tech employees, says Sam Blackman of Elemental Technologies, shown here outside the company's Portland office.

Intel gets most attention

Emerging from Intel’s shadow may be difficult, however. The semiconductor manufacturer generates press without even trying because of its outsize role in the world of high-tech businesses. And when it tries to make news, the coverage can seem overwhelming.

In the weeks leading up to the summit, Intel received worldwide attention by declaring that it intends to manufacturer chips for every conceivable communications and entertainment device, from smartphones to tablets to laptops and personal computers to Internet television devices.

Locally, the company made headlines two weeks ago by signing an agreement with Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber to invest $500 million and create 500 new jobs at its Ronler Acres campus in Hillsboro. The agreement, which guarantees how the company will pay state taxes for the next 30 years, was the second signed under a December 2012 law passed at Nike’s request.

And then last Thursday, Intel released its annual economic impact report. The report, presented at the Dec. 12 breakfast forum held by the Westside Economic Alliance, was prepared by the local ECONorthwest economic consulting firm.

Among other things, it found Intel has more than 17,000 employees in the region who earn an average of $168,000 a year, more than three times the statewide average. The annual payroll is more than $2.8 billion, while the annual economic output is nearly $27 billion — nearly 9 percent of the economic output of the entire state.

That’s more than the total manufacturing output in 20 states and 82 countries, said John Tapogna, president of ECONorthwest, a Portland-based consulting firm.

“Intel is single-handedly shaping the reputation of Portland and Oregon,” Tapogna told the gathering of elected, business and community leaders in Washington and western Clackamas counties.

Blackman does not knock Intel for its success. But he says many young high-tech professionals do not want to work for such a large corporation.

“People need to know there are other stories here,” Blackman says.