San Antonio’s Place in ‘The New Geography of Jobs’

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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 Dorćol 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 Dorćol Distillery. Photo by Iris Gonzalez.

Brian Dillard at Dorćol 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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13 thoughts on “San Antonio’s Place in ‘The New Geography of Jobs’

  1. It is true that places like Seattle, Austin, and San Francisco are drawing smart, young people, but what about the social costs for our overall society?

    I recommend a companion book, Bill Bishop’s The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of
    Like-Minded America is Tearing Us Apart. How many of these highly-educated, high tech entrepreneurs ever look up from their craft cocktails and smart phones long enough to empathize with those not fortunate to be among themselves? Brian Dillard seems an admirable exception.

    San Antonio is segregated and insular enough as it is. Drive five minutes east over the bridge at Cesar Chavez that turns into Iowa Street on the East Side and you will see packs of roaming dogs, boarded-up homes, prostitutes, and hard-working, low-wage workers waiting endlessly for the VIA bus to arrive. Step inside a nursing home even in parts of the North Side and you will find scores of neglected old people attended to by immigrant and woefully underpaid Certified Nurse Assistants. Look at folks in the trailer park along the Mission Trail forced to abandon their homes to make room for upscale apartments.

    How do we find find space for both those gathered at the Dorćol Distilling Company and those shopping for bargains at Family Dollar to ever meet and discuss our city’s real needs?

    • Mike

      San Antonio isn’t segregated for everyone. That Eastside tableau you describe? You should have attended the Rivard Report/Overland Partners ‘Place Changing’ event last week at the Spire on Central Street, the former home of
      St. Paul’s AME Church, the city’s oldest African-American congregation, now located in a larger, more contemporary church a few blocks away on the same street. By the way, Rev. Amerson, the church pastor, is quite welcoming to visitors who want to attend a service.

      Audience members at Place Changing ranged in age from middle school students to seniors in their 70s. One presenter, Rosemary Kowalski, is in her 90s. She was the only white person on the program, other than me the moderator. It would be hard to say which racial or ethnic group was most present; none dominated. The story telling was incredible, the community building undeniable. Common cause prevailed over conflict, mistrust and socio-economic differences. Story, video and photos are available on our site.

      Life in San Antonio’s urban core is as mixed and integrated as each one of us wants to make it. Yes, many cling to more narrow lifestyles, but many do not. It’s a beautiful city with all its problems and challenges and there is plenty of room for everyone interested in redefining it. We do need to do something about those stray dogs. Street prostitution, on the other hand, is definitely down. #DreamWeek

    • I’m actually not an exception. Many of my co-workers and friends in the tech industry aren’t of the elite group that you describe. We as a city need to begin to take a closer look at all of the consistent failures that cause the economic disparity that you referenced. Our tech folks are doing that in very apparent (yet often unacknowledged) ways. Our CyberPatriot program is a great example of how tech is injecting itself into the fabric of our edu system. Do we need to expand our efforts? Absolutely. Which is exactly what we are doing with discussions like this one. We aren’t just coming together to have drinks and pow-wow about new technology. We’re addressing major issues in an effort to further solidify our strategy and action plan for organic growth and change throughout our city.

    • It’s not fast enough for you. Is that it? I know! San Antonio, as a whole and in the minds of so many residents, is still segregated an insular. There are so many people who still don’t know what Geekdom is. They have never heard of the Rivard Report. They go on about their lives with one thing on their minds: Survival.

      Dollar General and Family Dollar know they have a strong footing here selling low cost wares. DG even has a distribution center. Small neighborhood stores and markets still reach people faster than a local H-E-B or Walmart would. Pockets of poverty are everywhere. The local dollar stores, check cashing outfits, pawn shops and staffing agencies cater to that.

      We can’t move faster than that! The poor outnumber everyone else here and the call centers and industrial centers are going to continue to pop up so the question is: How do we change that dynamic?

  2. Mike, have you read the book? You ask the key question – how do we create opportunity for all. As you know, there are no easy answers and these are extremely complex problems.

    You point out the lack of opportunity in SA. Then question all the high end jobs in Austin and other cities. The facts are every one of those jobs creates 5 traditional jobs available to those with fewer skills. Manufacturing jobs have about half the multiplier effect, but it shows you why rust belt cities have struggled – they lose 3 jobs for every manufacturing job lost. It is a tough spiral.

    My view is we need a self reinforcing economy that spins out more and more opportunity for all. Certainly hard to argue with retaining and attracting top talent. When it works it does not mean there are not issues (all progress comes with costs) – like displacement or the idealogical echo chambers you mention. We will then have to have very honest conversations about those issues. But, we have to start with more opportunity for our citizens, no? Would love to hear your ideas on how we should tackle that problem.

  3. This city on the edge quality is I think one of the reasons a number of people are moving back (or for the first time) to San Antonio. There is definite a vibe of something trying to happen. I find it interesting what Mike brings up, which is an undercurrent running through a number of comments at posts, about gentrification and the push and pull of ethic and income differences. See the articles about the French and Michigan Gallery zoning issues and the Mission Trails Trailer Park redevelopment..

    San Antonio is still at the stage where it can retain the mix of incomes and the city develops… That’s what makes NYC and San Francisco so great (and why San Francisco is becoming less so since their rent controls are less stringent).. I’m anti-rent control.. but that’s what created the mix within NYC that gives the city the vibrancy.

    San Antonio needs to figure out a way to harnass that and create mixed-use/income neighborhoods at a walkable scale…so not only with cybersecurity or tech jobs, but with sustainbility solar/wind/recycling.. and the monarch butterflies; historical missions and arts/architecture/culture tourism like New Orleans or Philadelphia or Boston, increasing connections with Mexico and Latin America, and you have a great potential for a city that is unique. So much more than Austin or Miami or Seattle or wherever else people think of.

  4. Article is spot on folks. The Dorcol event is one many meet ups that highlight this Edge. Will and Marina heard some good feedback to action on.

  5. Re: “How many of these highly-educated, high tech entrepreneurs ever look up from their craft cocktails and smart phones long enough to empathize with those not fortunate to be among themselves?”


    Your comment (referenced above) is a good example of the work we need to do. This is not a correct representation of who tech entrepreneurs are. All the men and women in a company’s IT department, the people who run the literal and figurative engines of every San Antonio industry sector, are part of the tech ecosystem. The engineers and programmers, many of whom were educated in the military, through self-learning, or through vocational training and may not have college degrees, are part of the tech ecosystem.

    As long as we characterize tech entrepreneurs as upper-class white males with “craft cocktails and smart phones” we discourage anyone who doesn’t fit that image from being a part of the community. It’s that perpetuated — and incorrect — image that actually creates the “clustering” that you describe.

    I love your commitment to combat segregation and insulation. But perpetuating the image of tech as “Other” works against your very admirable goals.

  6. You know NSA is here right? And so is USAF cyber command and Southcom. Those are huge centers of intelligent minds along with SwRI. We just don’t talk about them in media that much.

    • AB, everyone in the tech business community knows very well that much of our workforce is pulled from the military community here. It’s rare that you’ll attend a SAChamber meeting and not have several military leaders from local Cyber units at the table. The question now is how do we begin to develop homegrown talent, rather than simply continue to pull from our military talent pool. Not to say that military talent isn’t a great asset, but it would be a shame if our tech workforce never truly tapped into our native SA population.

  7. There is an onus on tech and other companies and organizations in San Antonio to be better employers as well as corporate neighbors (providing benefits not just to current employees) in order to attract, foster, retain and enliven ‘talent’.

    Many resources are spent on various events in San Antonio, these events (seemingly often lately a craft beer garden outing and/or panel lecture) can’t compete with the following leading organizational practices in tech and other industries – which could fit or support various qualities of life in San Antonio and help spill over into a ‘better’ city over time:

    – great outreach to and job offerings for local students and recent graduates

    – great outreach to and job offerings for women

    – great outreach to and job offerings for folks outside of the tech (or other industry) worker stereotype

    – generous parental leave and vacation time for all employees (which can encourage job sharing / maternity and paternity cover careers, etc)

    – family-friendly offices and policies

    – pet-friendly offices and policies

    – more flexibility in ‘full time’ hours and benefits (35 hr work week, a 9 day fortnight, etc)

    – commute assistance including public transit annual passes ( and support with active transport (showers, storage, bcycle station hosting, etc)

    – travel allowances (along with generous paid time off)

    – equal and equitable pay

    – commitment to leveraging and advancing existing staff

    – better job descriptions

    As others have pointed out, we’re very close to Austin except in some of the qualities of living that Austin has offered to help attract and retain residents and workers there. Some qualities that I remember and still appeal to me today include:

    – City outdoor pools open year-round and early morning to late night (as supported by ‘fiends of’ associations and minimal fees some hours and seasons)

    – Coffee shops & diners / work spaces (not just bars) open from early morning to early morning (in some cases 6am to 3am)

    – Pet-friendly cafes and housing

    – A weekly comprehensive (not just select) listing of the City’s cultural offerings (film, theater, music, etc) in print and online for free

    As a resident of Austin roughly ten years ago, I don’t recall anyone moving there because of a specific job or the quality of housing, public transit or streetscapes *by many measures very low).

    Yet many friends did everything in their power to stay there because of some the City’s recreational offerings (late night / early morning swimming pools open year round) and affordable and welcoming commercial cultural offerings (cafes, diners, movie theatres, etc) – along with work arrangements and pricing that allowed for the enjoyment of these offerings by many.

    When talking about the ‘geography of jobs’ in San Antonio we should be thinking about how qualities of employment as well as the timing, managing, locations of and access to various public and commercial recreational offerings in San Antonio influences the ‘map’.

    Some resources:

  8. Mark,

    These are fantastic suggestions. You point a specific way forward for Tech Bloc and Choose San Antonio, among other civic-minded organizations, to work with those from all walks of life to improve our city.

    I do not mean to denigrate those who are trying to make San Antonio a better place. I know those in the tech community want to make SA an attractive downtown for smart, young people; however, it seems that too many believe that the free market is a kind of God, where creativity, an independent spirit, and entrepreneurial drive are all one needs to succeed. Many seem both ahistorical and apolitical. Witness the low voter turnout in recent elections and the disdain toward unions. We live in a state that elected the self-serving candidate Ted Cruz when 50 years ago we could boast that Ralph Yarborough, the People’s Senator, once represented the working class in Texas.

    Yes, a vibrant high tech industry here could create five or six trickle down, coattail jobs such as domestic workers, teachers, and yoga instructors, but where would these middle-class workers live? I spent two summers in Portland, Oregon in the early 2000s. Most of the blue-collar workers did not live in metropolitan Portland; instead, they took the super-efficient high speed transportation in from decidedly unhip outlying areas like Gresham. Despite the amenities you mention about Austin, the same thing is happening there, as the working class gets pushed farther away from the city center.

    Dolores Huerta, the co-founder, along with César Chávez, of the United Farm Workers gave a talk here not long ago at the Briscoe Western Art Museum. Still sharp and lively at age 83, she said she had informed a group of young, committed activists during the Occupy Wall Street Movement how she and her colleagues were able to affect meaningful social change in the 1960s. She told them they needed to go where the low-wage workers lived, listen to their stories, get to know them and their families, and then, once there is a trust and bond, significant, long-lasting societal change might then occur.

    Instead of doing the time-consuming preparatory work she had suggested, these fledgling activists, encouraged by the incredible number of “likes” on their Facebook pages, marched to Sacramento, California, expecting to see a throng of like-minded folks cheering for them when they arrived at the state capital.

    Hardly anyone showed up.

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