Here's what the Bay Area can learn from Houston
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?
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.
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.