Local high-tech sector shows little sign of growth

Jobs in computer and electronic product manufacturing grew 3.4 percent in a year

By Gordon Oliver, Columbian business editor

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Jobs in computer and electronic product manufacturing grew 3.4 percent in a yearHigh-technology companies remain critical players in the local economy, but Clark County’s technology sector is showing little sign of growth in the face of rapid change within the industry and intense competition for new jobs.

County economic development officials are looking to software developers and related product-oriented firms as prospects for new job creation, although those companies typically employ far fewer people than the old-guard semiconductor chip and equipment manufacturers.

The county is home to some 3,000 jobs in computer and electronic product manufacturing, representing a modest 3.4 percent increase from October 2011 to last October. During that same time period, manufacturing employment increased by 5.8 percent and overall employment rose by 1.7 percent.

At its peak in 1997, technology manufacturing employed some 5,400 workers in Clark County, according to the state Employment Security Department.

“We had our downturn in ’08,” said Rob Bernardi, president of Kokusai Semiconductor Equipment Corp., a subsidiary of Hitachi Ltd., which is based in Vancouver. “We’ve been putzing around, and three or four years later, we’re still putzing around.”

Indeed, the semiconductor industry has grown in fits and starts, and the consumer electronics business has become increasingly punishing territory. Japanese firms, heavily represented in Clark County, are struggling with heightened competition from other Asian firms. Consumer shifts from computers to smartphones and tablets, and ever-shortening product life cycles, are forcing costly investments as well as management adjustments.

U.S.-based firms are not immune. The often tumultuous Hewlett-Packard, with some 500 printer division employees in Vancouver, faces intense market pressure as consumers reduce their use of printers, a cash cow for the company. HP increasingly is looking to software as an engine for growth.

Japan’s giant Sharp Corp., parent to Camas-based Sharp Laboratories and Sharp Microelectronics of the Americas, had to secure financial lifelines from Intel and Qualcomm in the face of record losses last year. Sharp relocated a solar division from Southern California to Camas in 2011, but it largely dismantled that division last year.

WaferTech, a subsidiary of the giant Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co., made the news amid industry speculation that TSMC was searching for a site for a 3.2 million square-foot semiconductor factory that would employ at least 1,000 people, possibly in Oregon or upstate New York. In addition, industry journals questioned whether WaferTech’s existing wafer plant had a viable long-term future without major investments to accommodate production of a new generation of chips.

The company’s local officials said WaferTech, with 1,000 employees and 1 million square feet, was doing well and had strong markets. But the 260-acre Camas site did not appear to be in the running for a new plant.

Washington faces intense competition for technology jobs from other states, including New York, that “literally got out their wallet” with financial incentives, Bernardi said. “States have to be very aggressive.”

But even with out the incentives available elsewhere, Washington and Clark County still have advantages in the battle for new technology industry jobs. Among them are the absence of a state income tax. And, Bernardi said, “Energy is still our trump card, as well as quality of life.”

Lisa Nisenfeld, president of the Columbia River Economic Development Council, sees promise for Clark County in technology sector service companies and in the ever-vibrant software development niche. While Portland is enjoying a buzz with its software and technology startups, she said, some companies are finding Clark County to be more appealing because of its tax structure, lower housing and commercial space costs, and a more family-oriented way of life.

“Services and software are where (the technology sector) has grown,” she said.