The crowd at the 2015 Tech Bloc Summer Rally. Photo by Scott Ball.
The Pearl Stable was packed for the 2015 TechBloc Summer Rally. Photo by Scott Ball.

I wasn’t at Dor?ol Distilling Company on South Flores Street for the Friday evening DreamWeek event that mixed cocktails with a panel discussion about creating more cyber and tech jobs and attracting the smart workers to San Antonio to fill them. The evening was hosted by Delta Risk LLC  and the panel was moderated by Brian Dillard, a cybersecurity worker at Delta Risk.

You can read contributing writer Iris Gonzalez’s account of the event here. What the panelists had to say deserves an even wider audience.

Moderator Brian Dillard stands amid the distillery equipment at Dor?ol Distillery. Photo by Iris Gonzalez.
Brian Dillard at Dor?ol Distillery. Photo by Iris Gonzalez.

Dillard is an example of the kind of Brain Gain that San Antonio covets: An Eastside native who left the inner city to attend college in Chicago, and then spent a decade in the Air Force acquiring his leadership and cyber skills. He came home and now is deeply engaged in his city, school district and neighborhood association. He’s a “city builder”, someone with a commitment to San Antonio, and the ideals, talent, drive and political skills to make a real difference. He’s also at risk of being recruited away if we don’t deliver on our promises to build a better city. Now.

San Antonio needs to attract thousands more Brian Dillards. One of the most effective ways we can do that is to tell other talented young people about the growing community of Brian Dillards already here in San Antonio. How? The answer came from Marina Gavito, one of the other panelists and a Rackspace executive on loan to Tech Bloc, where she serves as executive director.

“Smart people are attracted to other smart people and want to be where other smart people are,” Gavito told the Dorcól audience. “We need that critical mass here in San Antonio so this city can become a brain hub also.”

Is San Antonio on the new map?
Is San Antonio on the new map?

As panelists shared a parting thought on how to make San Antonio a more competitive, tech-driven city, Gavito recommended a book, “The New Geography of Jobs,” by Enrico Moretti, a UC-Berkeley economics professor. Tech Bloc’s leaders recently sent copies of the same book to Mayor Ivy Taylor, members of City Council, City Manager Sheryl Sculley, and Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff.

The Tech Bloc message: This book is a must-read, please! 

Moretti has the fresh eye of an immigrant (he grew up in Italy, the land of non-innovation). It isn’t news that in the latter decades of the 20th century marked the end of the U.S. manufacturing-driven economy. Companies seeking to be globally competitive began to outsource most manufacturing work to developing countries with abundant cheap labor. A new economy began to take shape, one based on new technologies, innovation and entrepreneurship.

Some cities fought the inevitable, hoping to protect the old world order. Other cities led the change and became magnets for smart, tech-savvy workers.

Moretti calls the new order workers “idea-creators,” and he points out that for every innovator five other service jobs are created to support that innovator: lawyers, teachers, chefs, yoga teachers. Not everyone agreed or saw what Moretti was seeing, and by the time his book came out in 2012 he said U.S. cities had sorted themselves into three categories:

* Smart cities like San Francisco or Seattle with a large population of highly educated people and a high number of innovators.

* Dying Rust Belt cities like Detroit and Cleveland, still mourning the loss of their unionized manufacturing bases and the millions of high-paying jobs that workers, most without any advance education, had lost to developing countries. Those cities are just now accepting the reality that they must reboot.

* Cities on the Edge that could go either way, depending on the choices their leaders make and, ultimately, whether they can attract educated, skilled workers who are innovators. Innovators create solutions to problems, and they have the skills to adapt and thrive in fast-changing urban landscapes. They solve problems, meet market needs, and create wealth.

San Antonio is a city on the edge. We can go either way. If we leverage our advantages, we will become a city where innovators want to live and work. If we are held back by our  weaknesses, we will lose. That’s why Tech Bloc has been handing out ‘The Geography of New Jobs” to some of the city leaders. As innovative cities like Austin, Charlotte and Boston reap new opportunities, we have to accelerate our own efforts to play catch up. Local tech leaders, more than most of the city’s civic and business leadership, feel a great sense of urgency. Their fear is that San Antonio will wake up one morning and realize it’s too late to compete.

Tech Bloc, contrary to what some think, is not saying that San Antonio should stop recruiting companies that build call centers and back office operations here, which employ a lot of people. The Tech Bloc message is this: Stop celebrating the news as if it’s a Big Win to land 400 jobs that pay $12-20 an hour. A Big Win is a small startup with a product that solves a problem, that meets a real market need, and with the right incentives and support, grows into a real business, one that creates hundreds of high-paying jobs for smart people that will stay here. Then other startups can spin off it.

Toyota’s arrival more than a decade ago was a godsend for San Antonio, but history shows manufacturing jobs will chase cheap labor. Perhaps Toyota is the exception, but Moretti sees a world where highly paid Apple engineers and designers are working on the next generation of iPhones in Cupertino, Ca., while low wage workers in China are busy manufacturing and assembling the iPhones for shipment to global markets. Apple’s well-paid workforce never even touches the smart phone you are holding.

What does San Antonio need to do to compete? Reading Moretti’s book is a good start. Listening to the people we want to live and work here will help, too. The best and brightest of the Millennials know what kind of world they want to build and how to get there. We have to trust them, share power, and let them lead change.

My wife, Monika and I are fortunate. Our sons left the city years ago to pursue higher education in new places, and while they loved San Antonio, they saw opportunity elsewhere. Years later, that began to change and they returned as young men with skills and experiences and ideas the city needs. San Antonio had changed enough to bring them home, but it hasn’t necessarily evolved enough to keep them here. Change must continue, and they want to help drive that change

They and Dillard are part of a new mobile population of smart workers described in the “The New Geography of Jobs.” They are talented, worldly and unafraid to leap. They have friends everywhere and they stay in touch. Someone in New York or Berlin is only the touch of a smartphone away.

They are determined to live in a city where they can make a difference, one that respects and embraces their values. San Antonio is a city on the edge. It could go their way, or it could sprawl into oblivion. I bet Moretti is watching.

 *Featured image: The Pearl Stable was packed for the 2015 Tech Bloc Summer Rally. Photo by Scott Ball.


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Robert Rivard, co-founder of the San Antonio Report who retired in 2022, has been a working journalist for 46 years. He is the host of the bigcitysmalltown podcast.