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Here's what the Bay Area can learn from Houston

When it comes to maintaining a good ecosystem, diversity is key. Houston learned that the hard way. Photo by Tim Leviston/Getty Images

Hello Bay Area! We Houstonians are concerned about you.

We think your economy is becoming overly dependent on Silicon Valley. In 2018, the technology industry accounted for around 62 percent of all office leasing activity in San Francisco. From September 2017 to September 2018, tech companies and realty investors bought $1.43 billion worth of San Jose downtown properties, nearly three times what they spent the year before on property in the city.

Some of your biggest search, social media, and database companies are expanding their headquarters in San Jose, San Francisco, and the rest of Silicon Valley. This is causing the construction industry to become more dependent on tech. But it's not just the construction industry that is becoming attached at the hip with Silicon Valley. According to the Bay Area Council, for every one high tech job created in the U.S., four more are created in industries as varied as education, law, dentistry, retail, and food. That means a lot of jobs in the Bay Area are, and are going to be, dependent on Silicon Valley.

Meanwhile, the Bay Area's high cost of living is pushing low and middle-income people further and further away from the state to places like Colorado, New York, and Texas (thanks for that by the way). The Bay Area had the highest income disparity between those migrating into the area and those leaving it than any major metro area in the country between 2010 and 2016. An economy can't last with just high-salaried tech workers.

We here in Houston have seen what happens when a metropolitan area becomes overly dependent on its dominant industry.

The 1980s were a tough time in Houston's history due to the huge fall in oil prices. In 1986, crude oil prices fell 52 percent to about $27 a barrel in today's dollars. The majority of Houston's economy was centered around the oil business at that time. The industries that were not directly related to energy, such as restaurants, car dealerships, and real estate were in a symbiotic relationship and were in some cases catastrophically hurt. When the oil industry took a hit, the entire economy took a hit. During this time, Houstonians lost 225,000 jobs, or one in eight jobs in the city.

Many young workers in petroleum engineering, geophysics, and other energy positions were laid off, many leaving the industry altogether. Older workers retired. In the mid-2000s, when the shale drilling revolution began, the needed manpower was just not there to meet the demand and it was expensive to hire and train a new workforce.

We were able to recover. Some 175,000 Houstonians are now working in oil production, oil field services, materials, and fabricated metals, and tens of thousands more are working as suppliers and contractors. We're more ethnically and industrially diverse than we ever were before, but it took time.

What did we learn from the 1980s?

First, diversify.

While we still have a vibrant oil and gas business in Houston, we've also expanded further into our other core industries: health care, technology and space. The Bay Area is fortunate in that it has strong banking, agriculture, and tourism industries. It ought to be putting more TLC into these industries or expanding into other fields.

We learned not to keep all of our wealth in the oil and gas companies in which we work. It's far too common for Silicon Valley workers to have too much trust in the companies they work for, hoping that their stock options will propel them to riches one day. As we learned in Houston, this can lead to disastrous results. Diversify your portfolios, but be careful. Houstonians over invested in real estate in the 1980s and miscalculated the future of that industry.

Second, Houston has also learned to keep well-educated professionals trained and capable of finding support for those in between jobs. Luckily this doesn't seem to be a problem for the Bay Area. While the Greater Houston Region keeps roughly 66.1 percent of its four-year college graduates in the area, the Bay Area keeps 65.2 percent of its graduates around. So, Bay Area, never take your universities, like U.C. Berkeley and Stanford, for granted.

We know the Bay Area has seen its own troubles before. The dotcom bust of the early 2000s was devastating to the local economy. We're just especially sensitive to what happened to us in 1980s and we'd hate to see the Bay Area go through something similar again.

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Elizabeth Biar is vice president of Strategic Public Affairs, a government elations and PR/communications firm based in Houston. Sam Felsing is a former reporter and who currently works as a senior account executive at Telegraph, a political consulting and public relations firm based in Oakland, California.

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Building Houston

 
 

5G could be taking over Texas — and Houston is leading the way. Photo via Getty Images

Based on one key measure, Houston sits at the forefront of a telecom revolution that could spark a regional economic impact of more than $30 billion.

Data published recently by the Texas Comptroller's Office points out that as of last November and December, Houston led all cities in Texas for the number of so-called "small cells." Small cells are a key component in the rollout of ultra-high-speed 5G wireless communication throughout the Houston area and the country.

As the Texas Comptroller's Office explains, small cells are low-powered antennas that communicate wirelessly via radio waves. They're usually installed on existing public infrastructure like street signs or utility poles, instead of the big communication towers that transmit 4G signals.

The comptroller's tally shows Houston had approved 5,455 small-cell sites as of the November-December timeframe. That dwarfs the total number of sites (1,948) for the state's second-ranked city, Dallas.

"Houston is in the vanguard of small cell permitting in Texas, and not just because it's the state's largest city; advocates have lauded its proactive approach to 5G. Other cities, particularly smaller ones, are lagging well behind," the Comptroller's Office notes.

According to CTIA, a trade group for the wireless communications industry, 5G holds the promise to deliver an economic impact of $30.3 billion in the Houston area and create 93,700 jobs. The group says industries such as health care, energy, transportation, e-commerce, and logistics stand to benefit from the emergence of 5G.

"Maintaining world-class communications infrastructure is a requirement for success in a rapidly changing global economy. Small cells and fiber technology are the key foundational components for network densification and robust 5G. Cities like Houston that have embraced the need for this infrastructure will see the benefits of 5G faster than others," Mandy Derr, government affairs director at Houston-based communications infrastructure REIT Crown Castle International Corp. and a member of the Texas 5G Alliance, tells InnovationMap.

Derr says leaders in Houston have embraced the importance of small-cell technology through "reasonable and effective" regulations and processes aimed at boosting 5G capabilities. Three major providers of wireless service — AT&T, T-Mobile, and Verizon — offer 5G to customers in the Houston area.

"More small cells and fiber provide greater and faster access for the masses, enabling the connectivity that is essential to our businesses today — whether it's accepting payments on a mobile card reader, completing a sale on the go, or reliably reaching consumers where they are," Derr says.

In a blog post, Netrality Data Centers, which operates a data center in Houston, proclaims that Houston is shaping up to be a hub of 5G innovation.

"Houston has always been on the frontline," Mayor Sylvester Turner said during a 5G roundtable discussion in 2019. "It is who we are. It is in our DNA. We are a leading city. We didn't wait for somebody else to go to the moon. Or to be the energy capital of the world. Or the largest medical center in the world. But you don't stay at the front if you don't continue to lead."

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